Through the Wormhole s04e09 Episode Script

Do We Have Free Will?

Freeman: Do we control our destinies Or are we prisoners of fate? We may all be at the mercy of our biological programming.
Our actions may not determine the future.
And the future might reach back to change the past.
Is freedom of choice just an illusion Or do we have free will? Space, time, life itself.
The secrets of the cosmos lie through the wormhole.
The ancient greeks believed everyone's path is set at birth.
No matter what we do, there is no escaping the fate the gods have chosen for us.
Freedom of choice is an illusion.
Today, some scientists believe the greeks were right.
Our courses really are predetermined, not by the will of celestial beings, but by the workings of our brains and the fundamental laws that govern time and space.
Do we have free will? Or are we just puppets dangling from invisible strings? When I was in grade school, I got into trouble in class one day.
Morgan! Freeman: I fled the classroom and ran full-tilt into a teacher, who then introduced me to my first drama teacher.
Where you running off to, son? It was the beginning of my acting career.
It might have happened differently.
Or was it meant to happen? The answer may lie in the heavens.
[ Thunder crashes ] Like many athletes, Dennis shaffer wants to know what makes his opponents tick.
And as a research psychologist at Ohio state university, he's finding the answers.
Dennis studies the hidden forces that control the way we move.
I started studying how baseball outfielders catch fly balls, and from there, it was just the confluence of my love for visual perception and of sports, studying how people navigate in the environment.
Freeman: Few of us are conscious of the underlying mechanisms that guide our behavior.
Most of the processes that we use to catch and throw a baseball, we're unaware of.
So, where I put my arm when I throw it, how exactly I get my glove to a certain spot to catch the ball, we're not aware of.
And it's very important to get as many processes automatic as possible.
That way, you have to spend less time actually with it in your consciousness, thinking about it, trying to remember what you're supposed to do, and that sort of thing.
We like to think our conscious minds have the final say over our actions, but is the conscious mind really in charge? Does what you think you are doing match up to what you actually do? Whoa, whoa, whoa! Oh, geez! Dennis and his students have set up an experiment to find out.
Today, they have rigged nine cameras to track the movements of a man, a woman, and a dog.
Okay, you'll want to face it in a little bit more toward the field where they'll be running.
Each will take turns chasing a frisbee.
They all have different strategies to catch it.
Jason plans to rely on speed.
Once I catch the frisbee in my sight, then I slow my speed down accordingly or speed it up a little bit faster.
Freeman: Jamie plans to run parallel to the frisbee.
I tried to stay under the frisbee when I was running to catch it so I could be ahead when it started to come down.
Freeman: Presumably, Merlin the dog does not have a conscious plan.
Using the data from the cameras, Dennis plots the movements of the chasers and their target.
He chooses a background point for reference, then maps how the flight path of the frisbee appeared to the chasers.
A familiar pattern begins to emerge.
So, what we're seeing now is the view of the frisbee from the perspective of the chaser, and what we see at each point in time from this perspective is that the frisbee is rising relative to the background scenery.
And you can see it moves in relatively a straight line and at a constant speed until the pursuer gets close enough to catch it.
Freeman: No matter what they believe they're doing, all three pursuers follow the same pattern.
Dennis has seen this happen in trial after trial.
What was most surprising about that is that dogs use the same strategy to catch frisbees that baseball outfielders use to catch fly balls, which shows that the basic, underlying mechanism that guides behavior is kind of a universal.
It's not species specific.
It's not target specific.
So, with a baseball or a frisbee or something like that, it seems to be universal across these domains.
Freeman: When you try to catch a flying object, you believe you're in charge.
But beneath the level of consciousness, your body executes dozens of programs that control your actions.
We think we consciously control our movements, but we do not.
Shaffer: My findings show that we have no free will when we pursue targets.
People think they're great at it, and they're awful at it, and the reason is because their conscious awareness doesn't lock up with the mechanisms that guide their behavior while they're intercepting flying objects.
Freeman: Imagine if you had to consciously control all the muscles you need to move -- to take a step or draw a breath or to eat and digest a piece of food.
Your brain is able to do all of this and more simultaneously, without it commanding your attention.
But how many of the actions we think we consciously decide to take are actually automatic and predetermined? What if the belief that we have any control is just an illusion? Until recently, Berlin-based neuroscientist John-Dylan haynes would've rejected this idea.
Then he began scanning people's brains, looking for the roots of free will.
What he found made him question everything he took for granted about his life.
Humans tend to be dualists, meaning that they think that the mind and the body are, to some degree, independent.
What modern brain scanners show is that there seems to be a one-to-one correlation between what happens in our mind and what happens in our body.
Freeman: Today, John is going to scan the brain of a man named Dennis while sets of three random letters flash on the screen.
Dennis will respond to the letters by pressing a red button, either right or left.
It's up to him.
The scanner will show when he decides to press the button, and a computer will record exactly when the button gets pressed.
The subject is doing the task.
This is what they're seeing on the screen.
So, they're seeing a sequence of letters, and at some point, they can freely decide to press either a left or right button, and then they have to tell us which letter was on the screen when they made up their mind.
So, here, the subject is now seeing this letter stream.
They haven't made their decision yet.
Now they've just made a decision, and now they have to tell us which letter was on the screen when they made up their mind.
Freeman: The brain scans show that again and again, Dennis decided to push the right or left button about a second before he acted.
But there's another pattern of brain activity here, unconscious activity that occurs even longer before he makes a conscious decision.
So, what you can see here is brain images coming in.
The decisions begin to arise here in prefrontal cortex and in this medial parietal region here, and then what happens is the information seems to stay there for a few seconds and then moves on to a supplementary motor area located here, and then from there goes into the motor cortex, where it directly controls our movements.
So, we can see a whole cascade of processing steps.
First, the unconscious activity in these areas here, and then the conscious activity in these other brain areas.
Freeman: Dennis is supposed to be making a random decision, but it appears that up to 10 seconds before he decides to push a button, his subconscious mind has already made its choice.
So, we think, "when I make my decision now, I'm free to choose one or the other alternative," but if my brain has already become active and started preparing my decision 10 seconds before, this suggests that this is an illusion, that we're making up our decision now.
It's actually the brain activity leading up to this that has made the decision.
Freeman: You can make decisions, but you can only choose what your unconscious already decided for you.
So we control ourselves, but we can only control ourselves in one way.
That's the way in which our brain was destined to behave.
Freeman: John concedes that exceptional decisions, such as whether to get married or buy a house, aren't easily tested in brain scanners.
Nonetheless, he believes the experiment leads to an inescapable conclusion.
We are not in control.
We have this impression we make a decision, that we're completely free to take different options, and what our experiments show is that this idea, this is an illusion.
We're not free to make one or the other decision.
We're already preprogrammed by our brain activity, and it's already clear what's gonna happen, to some degree.
We're running around with an illusion.
Freeman: Is free will nothing more than a fantasy? This neuroscientist believes there is more to us than automatic systems.
And if we take things to the next level, we can find an escape route to freedom.
an Indian man named Siddhartha Gautama had an idea.
The idea is captured in the word anatta -- "not self.
" It means that our brains and bodies are just a collection of physical parts, and the self is an illusion that emerges when all those parts work together.
Siddhartha was later given another name -- Buddha, or "enlightened one" -- and his way of looking at things is strikingly familiar to modern neuroscientists.
Mike gazzaniga has been called the father of cognitive neuroscience.
After four decades of exploring the workings of the mind, Mike has concluded the inner you is the product of electrical impulses coursing through neural tissue.
Nothing more, nothing less.
It is the brain that is producing our mental life.
There's no question about that.
It's coming from this stuff.
The relationship of the mental life to the stuff that produced it is interactive.
A metaphor that helps thinking about it is the hardware/software distinction.
The computer hardware is nothing.
It just sits there unless there's software, and the software then makes the computer hardware work to produce function.
And the argument that I think for the brain is similar -- that the mental and the physical layers are interacting in some way to produce these wonderful things of consciousness and cognition.
Freeman: So, we're all just biological machines.
The worst word in the English language is "just," right? Just machines.
We're fabulous machines.
Freeman: But can machines, biological or mechanical, control their fate? Mike believes so.
We may be filled with automatic systems, but at a higher layer of brain function, we are capable of making free choices.
To understand how, Mike says we need to look at ourselves the way physicists look at nature -- as a set of complex systems that emerge from the layers of systems beneath them.
Knowing how one layer works won't necessarily help you understand another layer.
The concept of emergence is how physical entities, such as water, at one level can't explain the next level of organization, which is how water at the sea forms into waves.
That is a different sort of set of principles that are involved, and no way by understanding water are you gonna understand wave formation and execution.
Freeman: And our multilayered brains are not isolated systems.
In fact, our brains are like cars.
Cars are machines filled with networks of precision parts, each with a specific function, but together forming one complete system.
But cars are not meant to be stand-alone objects.
[ Engine revs ] They are meant to share the road with other vehicles, just as our brains are designed to interact with other brains, and this, Mike feels, is the layer where free will exists -- the level of personal responsibility.
If you were the only person in the world, there's no concept of personal responsibility.
What's it mean? It doesn't mean anything.
There's no one else to be personally responsible to.
So it is developed out of the interactions that occur when there's more than one person.
Freeman: Whenever we make a decision, our choice has a ripple effect on the people around us, and those people will punish us if we fail to follow the rules of society.
We may not have many options, but we are responsible for our actions.
Gazzaniga: Any network, the elements have to be held accountable for their actions or the whole thing doesn't work.
Freeman: We follow sets of rules, but are free to make choices within those boundaries Or to completely ignore them.
[ Horns honking ] Gazzaniga: Freedom means getting more information so we get smarter and smarter and wiser and wiser about all the things that are going on around us.
That's how you can define freedom, but it's done through this very beautiful, mechanistic machine that accomplishes all these things.
It's pretty cool.
Freeman: But what happens when we go beyond one-to-one, personal interactions and out to the next layer, the layer of mass social behavior? A new kind of science is finding the societies we live in follow rules as predictable as those guiding the movements of the planets.
This man is using them to see the future and to see whether we have any hope of changing it.
Many christians say God gives us freedom to choose between good and evil.
We are all responsible for our actions.
But some denominations believe God sets our course from birth.
How much freedom do we really have? Society puts limits on our free will.
In fact, a new science contends that we can use equations to accurately predict what groups of people will do in the future.
Are we all prisoners of fate? Sean gourley is a two-time New Zealand decathlon champion.
He understands that mastering certain fundamentals leads to a desired outcome.
Sean is also a physicist.
After working in nanotechnology, he turned his keen mind to the troubled world around him.
Why do we have disease and epidemics that spread across the globe? Why do we have financial market crashing? You know, why do we have conflict and insurgency that we can't seem to wrap our heads around? So, those, for me, were the really, really big questions, and I guess it was just coming at a point when there was enough data coming online that we could start to actually take the techniques from experimental physics and apply them to understanding the world around us.
Freeman: Physicists describe nature using the language of mathematics.
Human behavior may seem to live outside of this realm, but Sean says it, too, can be reduced to mathematical predictability.
Gourley: So, you know, when you're out running hurdles, you're obeying a set of physics equations.
It's very predictable.
If you measure the force at which you drive across the hurdle, you'll be able to predict the time that you finish the race in.
And so on the track, there's newtonian physics.
When we work into the world of insurgency or financial market crashes, it's the world of nonlinear physics.
It's chaos, and it's a different type of physics, but it's a physics nonetheless.
Freeman: Up close, the behavior of birds seems chaotic.
But when we stand back, we see patterns at work.
The same applies to groups of people.
Gourley: So, when you look at people moving in the crowd, they've got a few basic equations they want to optimize.
Now, they're not necessarily consciously aware of these equations.
It's things like they want to get from "a" to "b" as quick as possible or they want to do it in a way that avoids obstacles, so they tend to follow people in front of them and let the person in front sort of act as a buffer.
So, we start to see these channels form of people kind of almost forming little trains as they move through the environment, and these trains last for maybe a few seconds or maybe a few minutes and then they break apart again.
So, when you put the variables of reaction, speed, and kind of a goal in mind and you put a large group of people together, you can kind of start to model this with three or four variables.
And with those three or four variables, all of a sudden that swarm of people ceases to become random and starts to become predictable.
Freeman: The way Sean sees it, simple social rules give rise to global patterns.
If you can understand the patterns, seemingly chaotic events become predictable, and you can find ways to change the patterns.
[ Glass shatters ] [ Crowd shouting ] Wars have plagued humanity for the whole of human history, but what if we could see them coming? What if we could predict a flash point and take steps to stop it from happening? Sean and his colleagues at the data analytics company quid collect all available information about conflicts around the globe, then they look for patterns that emerge from the seeming chaos.
They gained a reputation in the defense community tracking the growth of the insurgency in Iraq.
Gourley: So, you've got the collective actions of literally tens of thousands of different individuals and, also, on the U.
side, as well, coming together to create a statistical signature that none of them are aware of.
Freeman: Sean has found a strict mathematical relationship between the number of attacks and their size.
Gourley: It's a very, very clean, straight line.
Out of all the different things that it could be, it chose this.
[ Indistinct shouting ] Freeman: And the same patterns of violence show up in armed conflicts around the world, from Iraq to Colombia to Afghanistan to Indonesia.
Gourley: We can actually start to very accurately predict the likely size of an attack for any given time period within the conflict.
It's almost as if somebody came and placed every dot, but, of course, no one's placing every dot.
This is people that are out there to try and kill each other.
Freeman: But once you see this pattern, when you know what the future will bring, can you change it? Gourley: If we want a different kind of future, we want to engineer the conflict to end up in a different direction, we, as humans, need to make decisions.
We need to target different groups.
We need to think, is it normal to attack big groups or small groups? Should I take things out of the top level or should I take things out of the bottom level? We've found patterns that show how the world is.
What we really want to get to is patterns that show how the world will be, based on the decisions we make.
Freeman: The more data we have, the better we can control our fate.
But will we ever have enough data? Over the course of human history, empire after empire has discovered that altering the course of world affairs is not easy.
It may be that, as the ancient greeks suspected, we can change small things about our lives, but ultimately we are all in the grip of an unavoidable fate.
I think when you've got free will, it's not an either/or.
It's a "yes, but," and you have free will, like I had free will at the running track to move the hurdles up or down.
I can choose what hurdle I want to go over, but I can't choose to turn off gravity.
And when I go into a war, I can choose, on some level, my actions within, you know, Iraq, but I can't change the mathematical signature that underlies the way I'm likely to die.
And I think that's a really difficult thing for us, as humans, to wrap our heads around, because on the one hand I can choose and on the other hand I have no choice.
Freeman: No matter how wild we might be at heart, individual actions can rarely change the course of human history.
The power of free will depends on what layer of existence you examine -- society or the individual.
There are layers in the natural world, too.
The motions of galaxies, stars, and planets follow strict laws of cause and effect, with no room for free will.
But down at the subatomic layer of existence, is the universe also wild at heart? Isaac Newton saw the universe as a giant clock, beautifully intricate but utterly predictable.
With enough information, you could know everything that will happen until the end of time.
In the 20th century, as we dug down into the subatomic world, the predictability of Newton's universe fell apart.
In the quantum world, nothing is determined until you look at it.
[ Rapid ticking ] [ Rhythmic ticking ] But what if there's an even deeper layer on a scale far smaller than the quantum world, a layer just as predictable as the universe Newton imagined but following laws we don't yet understand? Dutch physicist Gerard 't hooft suspects it might be true.
Gerard won the nobel prize for his part in developing the standard model of particle physics, our best description of the quantum universe.
If physics is like a game of chess, Gerard is a grand master.
But if you don't know the game, chess pieces seem to move in completely unpredictable ways, and the same can be said of quantum objects.
Quantum physics suggests it's impossible to ever know the precise location of a particle and the movement of a particle at the same time.
This effect is called quantum uncertainty.
A particle can be here or there or there but not in between, or a particle is here or it isn't here.
That's fine, but there is another aspect to quantum mechanics which is very strange, and that is that you can have what you call interference.
So, particles can be in a position like this or in a position like this or here, and then they also say the particle can be in all these positions at the same time.
It is in an undecided position.
Freeman: As strange as this sounds, quantum uncertainty has been tested and proven again and again.
Quantum mechanics is a superb theory, but it's not good enough to my taste, and that's because it somehow defies ordinary logic.
Freeman: To find logic in the quantum world, Gerard is probing the mathematical fundamentals of quantum theory.
Working at a level few can comprehend, he has come to believe that despite the seeming unpredictability of quantum particles, the whole of existence follows a strict, unbending set of rules, and the universe really does control our fate.
I like to view the universe as a computing instrument, as a gigantic computer, a computer not different from your laptop or from any other computer except its size and its speed.
The universe calculates extremely fast and with extremely, gigantically big memory, unlike any man-made object.
Freeman: Computers here on earth operate using a binary code of zeroes and ones, so where do we find the zeroes and ones of the universe? It's a matter of scale.
With normal vision, most of us can spot a penny on the ground.
But for Gerard to spot a miniature coin on the sidewalk of this miniature street is nearly impossible.
And Gerard towers above something exponentially smaller than this miniature coin, a scale trillions upon trillions of times tinier than the width of an atom.
This is the planck scale, the basic level of measurement of the universe.
It's here at the very bottom layer of existence that Gerard believes we will find the basic bits of information at the heart of creation -- what he calls beables and changeables, binary particles that can only give yes or no answers, not maybes.
This layer exists far beneath the quantum layers we see today.
'T hooft: So, I believe that is the scale where everything actually happens, where everything becomes deterministic.
Freeman: Gerard's calculations indicate that at the planck scale, the universe is not a game of chess, where pieces move in strange ways and jump across vast terrain.
The universe is a game of checkers, a binary world where one frame can only affect an adjoining frame.
'T hooft: Think of a checkerboard with billions and billions of squares, and now you look at a checkerboard from a great distance.
You can no longer follow in detail what happens.
It looks to you as if chaos takes over, as if things are undetermined.
So, I believe that's the origin of quantum mechanics.
We can no longer predict things with infinite precision because you're not under control at all of what happens in all extreme details, as we would like it.
Freeman: At its deepest level, the universe may be an enormous checkerboard, and everything happening in it is a product of its moves.
But at the layer of reality we perceive, these basic patterns can't be seen.
Although our actions are ultimately determined by the universe, it feels like we have free will.
But one physicist feels the fuzziness of quantum mechanics allows for genuine free will.
He says cause and effect may not be what we think they are, because the future can reach back in time and affect the present.
The hindu concept of karma maintains every act, good or bad, no matter how insignificant, will eventually return to the doer with equal impact.
Karma is the moral law of cause and effect.
What if this works in reverse? What if the things we will do in the future affect what happened in the past? This physicist has a new way of looking at quantum mechanics, a way that shows free will is written into the fundamental structure of the universe.
Ken wharton is a Professor at San Jose state university in California.
Since he was a little boy, he has been fascinated by the idea that fundamental laws of nature can explain nearly everything in our day-to-day existence.
When I was a kid, my parents took home movies, and we watched them on actual film, and the thing about actual film is after you play it, you have to rewind the film.
And you could leave the projector running while you did this, and we often did, and we laughed at how funny everything looked running backward.
But my father was a physicist, and he would tell me -- I distinctly remember -- "Ken, everything you're seeing here "still obeys the same laws of physics, running either direction.
" And I've always tried to grapple with this question of how something that can look so different might still obey the same laws of physics.
Freeman: Can the laws of physics also predict the choices that people make? Are there fundamental rules that, when everything is set in motion from a given starting position, lead us inevitably to one and only one possible outcome? Einstein thought so.
His theory of relativity tells us we live in something called a block universe, in which all of space and all of time are laid out like a roll of film, where the past, present, and future all exist at once.
This, Ken says, means the future can affect the past, just as the past affects the future.
The future is not just some series of random events.
There are correlations between the present and the future that we can predict.
That's what science does.
And in the course of making these predictions, it's more natural to think of the universe as being one continuous structure rather than being a bunch of frames cut up and spread all over the floor.
Freeman: Ken believes that all events -- even quantum events -- have a definite starting point and a definite ending point, but there is uncertainty in what happens in between.
The way to make sense of this is retrocausality, the idea that it is our future choice that causes that uncertainty.
Freeman: Retrocausality means the future affects the past.
The beginning and ending of events are fixed in time, but Ken argues quantum physics creates flexibility in the middle, and that flexibility offers us the chance to control our fate.
In the newtonian clockwork universe, the initial state and the laws determine everything there is.
There's no freedom, given the initial state.
In a time-symmetric universe, it's not obvious that that's true, because if something is dependent not only on the initial state, but equally on the final state, now those intermediate events aren't predetermined in the sense they're not determined by the initial state.
They might eventually be determined, but there's more wiggle room for free will.
Freeman: In other words, the end points of our fates may be fixed, but we don't know how precisely we will reach them.
Wharton: I don't know what I'm gonna decide in one minute, and yet that decision will be made.
It will be determined.
So, there is a perfect example of something that I don't know and is not possibly not determined just by the past, but nevertheless will eventually be determined.
Freeman: As we sail into the future, do we really have the freedom to set our own course? This man thinks the fate of humanity hangs on how you, me, and everyone else answers this question, because if we give up on free will, humanity could be doomed.
The debate over just how much or how little freedom we have to choose our fate has raged for thousands of years.
It may go on for millennia to come.
No matter who is actually right, it certainly feels like we have free will, doesn't it? What if believing we have a choice is necessary for the survival of the human race? In 1994, a young man named Jonathan schooler picked up a book by nobel prize-winning scientist Francis crick.
In it, crick wrote, "you are, in fact, "no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.
" Jonathan schooler eventually became a neuroscientist.
Today he's a star Professor at the university of California, Santa Barbara, but he's still troubled by crick's book.
I was really taken with Francis crick's "the astonishing hypothesis" for several reasons.
First off, he said in absolute terms that science had conclusively ruled out the existence of free will, and I just wasn't really persuaded that that degree of certainty was merited.
Freeman: Crick's beliefs have only become more popular over time, so a few years ago, Jonathan began running experiments to see how this message of strict determinism affects people's behavior.
In today's experiment, a series of students will have their morality tested, but only after they are exposed to messages about the nature of fate and free will.
At the end of the experiment, they will fill out a short survey and then be paid with a dollar coin taken from this jar.
Some of the students read statements designed to induce a feeling that they are pawns of biology and fate.
Other students read statements that bolster their belief in free will.
Then all of the participants are given a cognitive test, but before they can finish, Jonathan pretends to be called away.
Oh, dear, I'm late.
I'm gonna need you to grade the test yourself.
I'll give you the key, and then score yourself $1.
00 for every one that you got correct, okay? Will the messages the students saw earlier affect their behavior? Most students only get a question or two correct.
Some pay themselves accordingly.
But other students take more than their share.
Schooler: Those people who were told there's no such thing as free will consistently took more coins than those who were not given that information.
In other words, telling people there's no such thing as free will to some degree undermines their capacity to act in a moral manner.
Freeman: Jonathan suspects believing you are just a pawn in a cosmic chess game gives people an excuse for bad behavior.
"Don't blame me.
I don't have free will.
" Schooler: Another possibility is it kind of pulls the rug out from underneath them, that they have this experience of will normally, but when you tell them they have no such thing as free will, they just don't have the oomph to be able to prevent themselves from resisting the temptation of avoiding cheating.
Freeman: Like all thinking people, Jonathan has his own views on free will.
He accepts that we are shaped by genetics, society, and the deep workings of the universe, but he also sees a place for conscious choice.
From my vantage, free will is a lot like sailing.
When you sail, you're buffeted around by the currents, by the weather, by the wind.
Nevertheless, you're able to set a tack, and even though you can't control where you are at any given moment necessarily, if you set your tack right, you can end up largely where you want to go.
Freeman: This is what Jonathan believes, but neither he nor anyone else can prove it.
Schooler: Although we've learned a great deal about the nature of human consciousness, about the nature of reality, about physics and so on, given what we don't know, I think we need to be very cautious about ruling out the existence of something that's so fundamental as free will.
And keeping that option open, allowing people to be free to believe in free will, seems to be a really good idea, because free will -- at least the belief in free will -- seems to be of great value to people.
Whether or not the universe controls our fate, humans will always be compelled to ask, why is this happening? We will always work for change, because even if our courses are predetermined, we don't know them and probably never will.
For us, every day is a new chance for discovery, a new opportunity to take control of our destiny Illusion or not.