Krista Tippett and physicist Leonard Mlodinow tie themselves up in knots trying to bridge the gap between free will and physical determinism. This is a tired topic, but it’s useful to see just how muddled the thinking is, even for someone as smart and thoughtful as Mlodinow is:
1. Tippett refers to the “scientific observation that free will is an illusion.” And Mlodinow implies that Laplacian determinism is a scientific theory. But I think it’s more appropriate to think of determinism as a key assumption of the physical sciences. In fact, it may even be part of what makes a scientist a scientist. A scientist is one who tries to explain physical phenomena in terms of other physical phenomena. He/she observes something about the physical world, and then tries to explain it as a result of something else in the physical world. So it’s not really a theory or an observation.
2. Mlodinow seems to want to claim the mantle of Laplace. But he’s not really a Laplacian determinist. If he was, then how could he hold up his father as an example of a Holocaust hero. How is his father any better than Hitler, if both of them are just a bunch of subatomic particles bouncing around as they were predestined to do at the Big Bang? He knows that Laplacian determinism is really just a thought experiment, an assumption, and that it has no relevance to our lives. In the end, he admits this: “Yes, I definitely think that my decisions matter.” How could he not? How could any of us not?
3. In the end, he wants science to be spiritual. And he realizes – while he strives to be rational – it’s not entirely possible. “I had an insight that I have beliefs that are not scientifically-based, too, and I believe them. “