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Quantum Physics and Free Will
Jul 1, 2010

Is life unpredictable? Do we choose our own thoughts or our own path through this life? Are we beings who truly have the free will to decide which path we will take or which choice we will make? Or do we live and breathe in a completely deterministic world? Are we merely an aggregation of particles that react and respond in predictable ways? Most scientists would agree that on the atomic level there is a certain amount of predictability, but what about the curious behavior of particles on the subatomic or quantum level? And what does this strange behavior have to do with us?

Here, let us explore the quantum theory and what it might be able to tell us about ourselves and how we interact with the people and the world around us. If we live in a world where the behavior of particles cannot be predicted, then can we conclude from this that human beings and the human mind are just as unpredictable as quantum particles? We met with Nobel Prize Winner Dr. Charles Townes in Berkeley California. Townes is the inventor of the maser (microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) which led to the laser, something that has changed our world in profound ways. He received the Templeton Award.

Scientific discoveries

Matter & Beyond: The spirit of adventure, this wanting to wander from the beaten path, do you think that this goes hand in hand with being not only a scientist, but a scientist such as yourself who makes incredible discoveries?

Well I think exploration and trying to see new things and look at things that other people haven’t seen are all part of invention and a part of scientific discovery. So you need that attitude of exploration.

M&B: In your book How the Laser Happened you mention some responses when you started talking to people about your initial theories. Ike Bowen said, “Well, I’m very sorry to tell you but I don’t think radio waves are ever going to tell us anything about astronomy.”

Yes. Ike Bowen was a very famous professor and very intelligent; he’s done excellent astronomy and so on, but he didn’t think radio waves would work. One of the things you have to do to explore is to try things other people don’t think will work. There are many times in my life when I’ve done that. For example, when I was trying to build the first maser, I was told by two Nobel Laureates, “oh look, that’s not going to work, we know it’s not going to work, you know it’s not going to work, you have to stop; it’s a waste of money and time.”

M&B: Isn’t this an example of how some scientists box themselves in by trying to measure what is unknown only with what is known?

Yes, it’s very common that people close their eyes to really new things. But one should be able to disagree if you think there really may be something there; you should try it out. That’s what I did. I tried it out, and radio astronomy has turned out to be a very important field.

M&B: You had this feeling about it, but Ike Bowen didn’t.

I was rather more familiar with radio waves and microwaves than Dr. Bowen was. That may be part of it; but one’s instinct is also involved. Where do revelations come from? Where do new thoughts come from? It was something that I thought might be there, but I did know a little more about microwaves than he did.

M&B: Looking back what would you tell fellow scientists – would you give them advice based on this?

Perhaps my advice is think about the things you think might pay off and don’t be too persuaded by what other people think. Be willing to differ with other people, but think very carefully about what you’re doing. Be sure that you think it’s likely to work.

Religious discoveries

M&B: In addition to the Nobel Prize you have also won the prestigious Templeton Award. How did you become interested in this dialogue between science and religion?

Firstly, I’m both religiously oriented and scientifically oriented. In spite of many apparent conflicts between the two, in my mind there is no actual conflict. They’re much more consistent with each other than people think; in fact they help each other. Each can learn something about one from the other, and I felt it was time to point this out to people and emphasize it.

M&B: According to what you say in your acceptance speech for the Templeton Award, you started expressing your ideas about science and religion as early as the 1960s?

First I was asked to give a talk about it and then I wrote an article. It eventually became very, very popular and I was asked to give many more talks. So my ideas began to spread and I think this had an important affect on thinking at the time; this is why I received the Templeton Award.

M&B: Were you surprised at the reaction you received to this article?

I was surprised how fascinated people were about it, yes. In fact, it was the editor of Think Magazine who telephoned me and asked me if they could publish it. Think is a publication by IBM. I said, “all right; if you’d like to publish it that’s okay.” So he published it, then everybody began to read it and wanted to publish it in other places. I was impressed how interested people were; I was also pleased. I thought it was very important to try to understand the correlation between science and religion. Both are very important to us and to understand the correlation between them is important.

M&B: Where do you think the popularity of this comes from? This obviously resonates in many people.

I think religion is very important to many people, as it is to me, and science is important too; religious people want to try to understand it. They’re also pleased to learn that a scientist thinks that science and religion are consistent with one another; they want to learn more about such ideas.

M&B: Would you like to comment on the limits of scientific knowledge versus the limits of spiritual or religious knowledge?

Both are limited, as I have mentioned before. A set of assumptions are made and we use logic to try to derive things from that; but we can never be sure that these assumptions are consistent. Now, in addition we know that there are many puzzles in science. We are finding fantastic things. For example, many scientists, including Einstein, didn’t think the universe could have a beginning. Of course how could it possibly have a beginning; it couldn’t have started from nothing. Now we know the discovery of the “Big Bang.” The universe did indeed have a beginning. That was previously a religious view, but not a scientific view. Now suddenly we learn it had a beginning and this shows that science can shed some light on religion.

M&B: So what do you think are the most important and fundamental human questions; perhaps the top three?

A: Well, I suppose the most fundamental and human question is the meaning of life. Why are we here and what should we do? The meaning of life is a very important and interesting question. How did life begin, why is the world the way it is? We know the universe has to be almost exactly the way it is for us to be here, but how did it turn out to be that way? So there are many very basic and interesting questions, and of course how we should live depends on what we think this is all about. These are very fundamental and interesting questions.

M&B: Some say that science answers the “how” and religion answers the “why.” How do you react to this statement?

It’s something like that. I would say science is an examination of what the world is like, or what the universe is like. Even humans: science tells us what we are like and how we work. Religion examines what the purpose and meaning of the universe is, as well as that of humans and human life is. If there is a purpose and meaning, they must have something to do with what we’re like, and what we do, and so on. How we work must have something to do with this purpose and meaning, and so, if we understand one very thoroughly maybe we will be able to understand the other.

M&B: What can science learn from religion and what can religion learn from science?

I think some religious people have been too absolutist. Some scientists are too absolute as well. They think; science really understands that, this is all there is and nothing else. I think in both cases we should recognize that we don’t understand everything and must be ready to change our views to some extent. Maybe in general we know what is approximately right, but we must recognize that we don’t understand everything. Actually, religion has helped science and vice-versa at various times.

M&B: Could you give us some examples from the past about how religion and science interacted.

I would have to say that I believe science was a result of religion, and religion was monotheistic with a single God who created this universe and planned it. This has substantially affected early scientific views. The Greeks, for example, felt they could figure out what the world was like just from logic – they thought that it had to be a certain way and they thought about it using logic, trying to figure out what the world was like. Now, if there’s a God who created the universe, then God created the universe and made it the way He wanted it. So let’s find out what it’s like; if God created the world, then it should be consistent and reliable. So that, I think, was the background for the beginning of basic science. What is this universe really like and is it consistent, can we rely on it and predict it? So the religious idea of a single God that created the universe was basic to the beginning of science, or at least European science.

M&B: So that’s how religion inspired scientific questions. And how does science shed light on religion?

The Greeks, as I said, thought they could figure out everything just from logic, without observations. Now we have observations, we have to see what the world is like. As we learn what it is like this will shed some light on its purpose and meaning. I’ve already mentioned that we have discovered that there was a beginning of all things. We are able to understand more and more over recent years. The laws of science have to be almost exactly as they are if we are to be here. Atomic forces and electromagnetic forces have to be almost exactly the way they are for the chemicals that we need for our bodies to be here. Nuclear forces and gravitation have to be almost exactly the way they are for the stars to be here and to last so long. The sun, for example, is here for billions of years, shining on us and keeping us alive. Our life depends on the laws of science; they have to be almost exactly the way they are. We recognize that now; but why are they this way? Well, that’s the origin of the expression “intelligent planning.” Somehow it was planned, (intelligent planning) to make it come out this way, why else would it be otherwise?

M&B: But still, there are some alternative explanations as well.

Some people think that maybe there are billions and billions of different universes and each one is a little different. Well, that’s a possibility, but why would the laws of science differ from one universe to the other and so on? That’s an arbitrary assumption, but maybe. Otherwise one has to say: gee, maybe it was planned. For everything to come out exactly this way will shed some light; perhaps this was a planned and created universe. Science and religion interact and shed some light on one another; and I think as we learn more about each they will interact more.

Undiscovered territories: quantum mechanics and free will

M&B: With the birth of the quantum theory, there are some religious people who say that this gives us a clue into the true nature of reality. They have made the leap and they’re saying that our perception of something actually changes the nature of it. Would you like to comment on this?

Quantum mechanics describes how atoms and molecules behave and so on; that’s very important to us. But quantum mechanics is very puzzling in many ways. It’s really changed our views of what physics is like and what the world is like, fundamentally and philosophically. But it’s also very puzzling because it says that if you send a small particle through a hole, it may go this way or that way, and one can never know which way it goes until you look at it. But before you look at it, it may be here and it may be there, or it may continue to be in a combination of both places; but once you look at it, then it’s definitely there as you see it. Now why humans – why the observations of humans – have such an important effect, that’s a little puzzling. What role is it that humans really play in deciding just where the atom is and so on? In any case, quantum mechanics is a really remarkable and strange phenomenon which we don’t understand at all. It says that things are unpredictable and it’s changed our ideas of a deterministic world to one of a non-deterministic world. It is non-deterministic and one can never predict what it will do exactly.

M&B: Could you explain this to somebody who is really not a scientific person; do you think you could walk me through it?

Well, maybe. Now if we throw a baseball, once we see it start going we think we know what way it will go. But if we throw an atom, then quantum mechanics says that’s not predictable. It even says the baseball isn’t completely predictable, but it’s almost predictable. So it’s predictable with a precision we can measure. But for an atom, which has a much smaller mass, it’s not predictable and it may go this way, up, down, left, right. The laws of physics says that it can go all these different ways and we don’t know which way it’s going until we actually measure it. If we detect the atom here, then we know, “okay, it’s going this way.” But until that time, the atom is maybe in all these different places at the same time or at least in any one of them. We don’t know. Now that also means that in a sense all of life is unpredictable. We are made of atoms and these atoms do things. So, while we can assume roughly what’s going to happen in life we don’t know for sure.

M&B: Some people are making the leap, suggesting that because of the laws in quantum mechanics one’s thoughts somehow interact with the macro world. How would you respond to that?

There is no evidence of that at all. I don’t think quantum mechanics allows that. I know people have thought: well maybe this will allow some new things of that type, but it doesn’t. As noted earlier, one of the great problems is free will. How can we have free will and what is consciousness and what is free will? Science doesn’t allow free will, but that doesn’t mean that science is complete. Our present science doesn’t allow free will and we should recognize that. If we have free will then there is something new and different that we have yet to understand.

M&B: Some people think that the principle of uncertainty is a basis for free will; what are the arguments and counter arguments to this?

It is sometimes thought that because of the principle of uncertainty things are not predictable; this gives us a freedom of choice. But it doesn’t. We have a theory that’s being developed which shows how we can test whether or not there can be any outside force of any kind coming in to affect quantum mechanics; we carry out experiments that show that this cannot be. Thus, we do not have free will in accordance with our present understanding of science. It’s tempting to think that maybe this is not the case, but unfortunately it is.

M&B: Well, when you say that science doesn’t allow free will, my first thought is “so what? as a human being can I not decide that I want to live my life this way as opposed to that way ?

A present understanding is that science doesn’t allow free will. There has to be some new laws, something new, perhaps a new dimension somehow, a spiritual dimension or some new dimension. Something has to be happening if we have free will. Maybe we don’t have free will; however, if we really believe that we have free will, there must be something completely new that we don’t understand. This is an example of science and religion interacting and shedding light on one another. Our belief that we are able to decide this way or that is just an illusion; we merely think that we’re making a decision. There’s also the question of what is it that leads us to make a decision, where is this thing? Where is the human you envision? How do you define a human, where and what is this thing that has free will?

M&B: Do you believe that we can be reduced to being kind of a skin encapsulated computer, just a brain sitting on top of our shoulders?

Personally, I think we have free will. Most people think we have free will, even if science doesn’t allow for it. I am only saying that there is something new here we don’t understand; we have to go on from there.

M&B: What most excites you at the present time?

Well, I’m more and more impressed by what a wonderful world this is. I’m very curious and I’d like to learn more about it and have better instincts and more insight into it. It is truly remarkable.

Interview conducted by Mustafa Tabanli for Ebru TV for the Emmy Award winning television series Matter and Beyond. For more information and the full episodes visit