Free Will and Quantum Agency


The traditional problem of free will is that if the human mind can be reduced to a physical process, and all physical processes are governed by the strictly deterministic laws of classical physics, in what sense could our will possibly be “free”? Or, in a dualistic picture, if the physical world is causally closed, how could a non-physical conscious free will possible make any difference to the physical world, including the body? With quantum theory there arose the idea that individual quantum processes are genuinely indeterministic; might such indeterminism leave room for free will to make a difference in the physical world? However, as the usual quantum indeterminism involves mere randomness (governed by the Born rule), some researchers have opted for more controlled quantum processes, such as the “orchestrated reduction” of the wave function (Penrose and Hameroff), or ways of influencing the first-order quantum pilot-wave via higher-order mental fields (Bohm). Another prominent idea has been that human agents play a different role in quantum mechanics than in classical mechanics. In the context of the “standard” (Copenhagen) interpretation of quantum theory, various statements have been made which strongly implicate the experimenter agent in physics. It has been claimed that the wave function describes our knowledge of the system, rather than the system itself (Heisenberg). It has also been suggested that consciousness collapses the wave function – that it is only when the experimenter becomes conscious of the result of an experiment that a superposition of quantum possibilities collapses into one of the possible outcomes (Wigner). More subtly, some have emphasized the free choice of the experimenter when deciding what to measure and setting up the apparatus, thus partitioning the continuum of quantum potentialities into a finite set of discrete possibilities, while in the end it is nature which “chooses” the outcome according to the statistical laws of quantum theory (Stapp). This workshop will explore these and other questions connected to free will and quantum agency.


Workshop Presenters


George Musser

Contributing editor for Scientific American

New Jersey 


Paavo Pylkkänen (chair)

Department of Philosophy, History and Art Studies

University of Helsinki, Finland


Ron Chrisley

Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science and Centre for Cognitive Science

University of Sussex, Brighton, UK


Jan Walleczek

Phenoscience Laboratories

Berlin, Germany



George Musser

The Role of Conscious Agents in Physics


Ask not what physics does for consciousness, but what the science of consciousness does for physics. This review talk will go over various proposals for how conscious observers and agents might play a role in physics, from questions over the interpretation of quantum mechanics to the measure problem in cosmology and the arrow of time. I’ll take an audience poll to gauge opinion on these questions. In so doing we’ll lay the groundwork for the new results the other speakers in the session will present. 



George Musser is a contributing editor for Scientific American magazine in New York and the author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to String Theory and of Spooky Action at a Distance. 

Musser did his undergraduate studies in electrical engineering and mathematics at Briwn University and his graduate studies in planetary science at Cornell University, where he was a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellow.  A number of articles Musser solicited and edited have won major awards.  For example, in 2011, Musser won the Science Writing Award from the American Institute of Physics for his article “Could Time End?” in the September 2010 issue of Scientific American.  His book Spooky Action at a Distance: The Phenomenon That Reimagines Space and Time--and What It Means for Black Holes, the Big Bang, and Theories of Everything was published in 2015



Paavo Pylkkänen 

Extending Quantum Ontology to Include the Agent’s Mental Properties


Over the years, ontological interpretations of quantum theory (i.e. interpretations that do not give a special role to “observation” or “measurement” in quantum dynamics) have been developed (e.g. the Bohm theory). In an ontological picture we can assume that there is an “overall quantum world” which quantum theory describes. However, this overall quantum world contains a “classical sub-world”, a domain where certain quantum effects are negligible and the laws of classical physics provide a good approximation. Such ontological pictures raise fascinating questions about free will and the experimenter agent. Do those physiological processes of the agent relevant to free will live in the “classical sub-world” (as orthodox neuroscience presupposes), or might the physiological correlates of cognition and consciousness involve non-classical, quantum processes in some essential ways? Or does the quantum + classical physical ontology need to be extended to properly include the mental properties of the agent? Can this be done in a way that does not render mental properties causally inefficacous?  



Paavo Pylkkänen is Vice Dean of Faculty of Arts and Head of Department of Philosophy, History and Art Studies at University of Helsinki, where he has been Senior lecturer in Theoretical Philosophy since 2008. He is also Senior lecturer at University of Skövde (currently on leave), where he initiated a Consciousness Studies Program. His main research areas are philosophy of mind, philosophy of physics and their intersection. Pylkkänen has explored whether problems of consciousness can be approached in a new way in the framework of the new holistic and dynamic worldview emerging from quantum theory and relativity. He has been inspired by the physicists David Bohm and Basil Hiley’s interpretation of quantum theory and has collaborated with both of them. In his 2007 book Mind, Matter and the Implicate Order (Springer) he proposed that Bohmian notions such as active information and implicate order provide new ways of approaching key problems in philosophy of mind. For papers, see



Ron Chrisley

The Superpositional Structure of Enactive Experience: Implications for Free Will?


This talk will weave together three strands: (1) expectation-based models of enactive experience, which can be seen to  have a Hilbert-space like structure due to the counterfactual space of possible actions over which the expectations are defined; (2) quantum and quantum-inspired models of consciousness, which typically employ a similar superpositional space/structure; and (3) the implications for free will given (1), (2) and the constitutive connections between expectation-based accounts of experience and action.



Ron Chrisley is director of the Centre for Cognitive Science (COGS) at the University of Sussex, where he is also on the faculty of the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science, and Reader in Philosophy in the School of Engineering and Informatics. He was awarded a Bachelor of Science in Symbolic Systems from Stanford University and a DPhil in Philosophy from the University of Oxford. Before arriving at Sussex he was an AI research assistant at Stanford, NASA, RIACS, and Xerox PARC, and investigated neural networks for speech recognition as a Fulbright Scholar at the Helsinki University of Technology and at ATR Laboratories in Japan. From 2001-2003 he was Leverhulme Research Fellow in Artificial Intelligence at the School of Computer Science at the University of Birmingham. He is one of the co-directors of the EUCognition research network, and is an Associate Editor of Cognitive Systems Research and Frontiers in Psychology (Consciousness Research). He is also the editor of the four-volume collection Artificial Intelligence: Critical Concepts.



Jan Walleczek

Agent Inaccessibility to the Quantum World and the Problem of Free Will and Human Agency


The indeterminism of orthodox quantum mechanics has often been discussed as a source for human free will and agency. By contrast, deterministic quantum interpretations of the world have often been rejected on the grounds that these would deny the possibility of human freedom. The latter view is known as incompatibilism, i.e., the notion that free will and determinism are incompatible. This presentation shows that the competing interpretations – quantum indeterminism versus quantum determinism – are equally constrained by the same fundamental principle: the agent-inaccessibility principle (AIP) which generalizes the well-known fact of the inaccessibility of the experimenter agent to the complete quantum state (Walleczek [2019] Entropy, 21, 4). Based on the AIP and the formal uncomputability of quantum processes, the argument is advanced that the 20th century quantum revolution does not imply a radical shift from determinism towards indeterminism. To the contrary, it is argued that—given present scientific evidence —it is only valid to assert the following: the quantum revolution signifies the profound discovery of an agent-inaccessible regime of the physical universe. Concluding, this principle of agent-quantum inaccessibility appears to place a fundamental limit on human agency, i.e., on the human capacity to freely act in the world. Possible challenges to this conclusion will be discussed. 



Jan Walleczek is Director of Phenoscience Laboratories, Berlin, and Director of the Fetzer Franklin Fund of the John E. Fetzer Memorial Trust. Previously, he was Director of the Bioelectromagnetics Laboratory at Stanford University Medical School, California. Jan Walleczek performed doctoral work at the Max-Planck-Institute for Molecular Genetics, Berlin, and post-doctoral work at the Research Medicine and Radiation Biophysics Division of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, University of California at Berkeley. His scientific publications cover the fields of biology, chemistry, engineering, and physics. His recent work concerns the foundations of quantum mechanics and applications to living systems of concepts such as quantum coherence, emergent dynamics, and the flow of information, a long-standing interest which he summarized as an edited volume for Cambridge University press titled “Self-organized Biological Dynamics and Nonlinear Control”. In addition to metascience and advanced research design, his professional interests include the philosophy and the foundations of science.