Einstein misunderstood

Einstein was misunderstood when he said that God does not play dice with the universe. Philosophers assumed that Einstein was asserting that events don’t occur randomly; that the universe is one giant clock unwinding; that everything we think, every action we take, is predetermined at birth; that we are essentially meat machines.


Einstein believed no such thing. Not only is such a claim contrary to Einstein’s theories, it violates our common sense view of free will. I can continue to read this, or not. And free will is fundamental to law. Any crime I commit is not my doing; it is simply predetermined, out of my control, not my fault.

Einstein’s comments were directed towards the “Copenhagen agreement” in which Erwin Schrödinger wrote a wave function that predicted where you are most likely to find particles, such as the location of electrons around an atom. The function determines the probability of finding particles. Science writer George Musser describes Schrödinger’s function as a “haze of potential existence.” Mysteriously, when the wave function “collapses”, particles spring into existence by merely observing them.

“When you so much as look at a particle – bam! –its stops behaving deterministically and leaps to an end result like a kid grabbing a seat in musical chairs. No law governs collapse. There is no equation for it. It just happens.”

Einstein had trouble with that concept. He reasoned that there must be some underlying mechanism; that particles don’t spring into existence at the roll of the dice. What does it mean to observe something, anyway? Would a mere glimpse do? Could cats and bats bring particles into existence by observing them?

Einstein’s had no answer to his question. He simply said that there must be more to it than that. He believed that a branch of physics called statistical mechanics might hold the answer. It hypothesizes that events happen in both a completely random yet perfectly predictable way depending on the level of examination.

Einstein knew that things appeared to happen in a random way. But that even the unpredictable decay of radioactive nucleus must be predictable at some underlying level. That was Einstein’s complaint and what the Copenhagen agreement failed to explain.

To imagine how systems at different levels operate independently, imagine a hockey puck racing towards a goalie. At the level of atoms, the action seems completely random yet the flight of the puck is perfectly predictable (while scoring may not be).

Or imagine the opposite: that some demon could calculate the trajectories of the billions of atoms in dice as they are rolled. Even if all the details are known at the atomic level, the outcome is still a statistical prediction. The probability of each die landing on any side is one out of six.

Choice has nothing to do with atoms. It has to do with desire, intention, possibility –which exist at the psychological level of living, breathing humans. Why did you chose to read this far? Because you wanted to.

“My desire explains my action,” concludes Musser, “Most of the times that we ask ‘Why?’ we are seeking someone’s motivations rather than the physics backstory.”


Free will and social order

While it seems obvious that you do what you want, some neuroscientists doubt that. Free will is an illusion, they say. Nothing you do is a matter choice but chemical reactions. Just as your computer responds to clicks of the mouse, you are only reading this because biological stimuli. Triggers beyond your control made you read this. We are pushed around by chemical reactions –simply automatons.


I have trouble with that idea. While brain science is advancing at a spectacular rate, where is the state of consciousness or the capital of the mind? It stretches credulity to maintain that I didn’t choose to write these words, this column, on this day. The notion that I am nothing but a “meat machine” is ludicrous.

But let’s set all that aside for now. Instead, let’s look at how the belief in free will affects the way we function in society. After all, the belief in free will doesn’t depend on its existence.

Doubt in the existence of free will could be dangerous, say behaviourists. Researchers at the University of California found that students who thought they were not responsible for their actions (that free will doesn’t exist) cheated on exams 50 per cent more than those who believed in free will.

Others at Florida State University found that doubt in free will released an urge to harm others. In an experiment, free will doubters were ready to punish obnoxious members of their group more than free will thinkers were. The obnoxious members were actually researchers and they only appeared to be harmed by the test subjects.

Some neuroscientists have found that ethical behaviour is eroded by the perception of no will power, report Professors Azim Shariff and Kathleen Vohs in Scientific American. They discovered this by looking at a particular brain pattern that occurs before you make any motion, such as reaching for a cup. Subjects who didn’t believe in free will had fewer such brain patterns and were less able to inhibit impulsive reactions.

If people are not responsible for their actions, social cohesion is threatened. If I recklessly run over someone in my car, I can claim that that it is not my fault any more than the car’s. We are simply both machines responding to inputs.

Studies of group dynamics reveal that the assumption of free will is vital to order. Society depends on consequences for bad behaviour. The professors conclude:

“Why? Because these experiments confirmed what human societies have found over and over again throughout history: when laws are not established and enforced, people have little motivation to work together for the greater good. Instead they put themselves above everyone else and shirk all responsibility, lying, cheating and stealing their way to societal collapse.”

Free will may have no basis in science but belief in it does. Current societies are not equipped to deal with citizens who are not responsible for their actions. Perhaps future enlightened societies will function without the threat of consequences but for now we need members who believe in free will.