Bill Nye makes one of the most ardent questions of philosophy more easily understood. While competing visions of natural physical laws — received from Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr — have cast down on whether a satisfactory answer will ever be found to the free will question, Nye urges us to look inside ourselves and around ourselves. We feel as though we make free choice, and we observe similar patterns in the world. As we get closer to understanding consciousness, those observations will be validated or called further into question.
Thomas: Hi Bill. My name is Thomas and I'm from Los Angeles. I would really like to hear your opinion on whether or not we have free will in the conventional meaning. Is there really an independent ego right here that is in control of my every thought and action? I think Einstein is a determinist so he does not believe in free will, but then there's the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, although to my understanding the uncertainty is in our scientific instruments and the inaccuracies of the measurements. Thank you.
Bill Nye: Well, you covered a lot of ground in there, but nobody knows about the nature of consciousness. I think we have free will up to a point, but we are driven by deep, deep things like wanting to get food, making more people — that is to say mating. And then I cannot help but notice how much people from the same family tend to do the same things. Same families tend to do the same things just anecdotally. But clearly I know I have made decisions based on things that happened around me that I wouldn't have made without being informed by history or what I'd noticed. I know I have. Now if that turns out not to be true, I would be very surprised.
Now as far as the uncertainty principle goes, uncertainty principle is roughly there's a quantum, there's an amount of energy below which you can't measure. The old saying is you can know where the electron is or you can know how fast it's going, but you can't know both, not exactly because anything you would use to measure it would inherently move the electron or change its speed. That's the classic uncertainty principle at work. With that said, I am satisfied now, as an engineer and scientist, that our brains are chemical reactions and chemical reactions, at some level, depend on quantum mechanics, on the interaction of subatomic particles based on this extraordinary thing called quantum electrodynamics; you alluded to it.
And so at some level there's randomness in what we think because we're made of chemicals that have randomness. But largely, human behavior is generally predictable. There's whole schools full of psychologists and psychiatrists who study humans and they come across patterns, and those patterns have got to be part of our brains and our free will has got to be part of that. I mean I don't mean to skirt your question, but the nature of consciousness — you are living at a time when the nature of consciousness is not understood, but it may be very soon because we'll build computer models or computers that are as sophisticated or as complicated or as messed up as human brains and they will behave the same way as human brains, as long as they're plugged in, the computers. Carry on.