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Previous Programs

2018 Agency in the Physical World
2018 Awardees

2016 Physics of the Observer
2016 Awardees

2015 The Physics of What Happens
2015 Awardees

2013 Physics of Information
2013 Awardees

2010 The Nature of Time
2010 Awardees

2008 Foundational Questions in Physics and Cosmology
2008 Awardees

2006 Foundational Questions in Physics and Cosmology
2006 Awardees

Markus Mueller

Andrew Garner

Project Title

Where agents and algorithms meet: free will and computational irreducibility

Project Summary

Do humans have free will? If so, can machines have free will too? In more technical terms, how can there be agency in a world that evolves according to stringent physical laws? We are proposing this project because we believe that information theory opens up a fascinating new take on this old problem. Consider a simple physical system that evolves according to physical laws: our solar system. Suppose we want to predict the position of planet Jupiter on New Year?s Eve 2050. To do this, it is sufficient to use Kepler?s laws (that every planet orbits the sun in an ellipse). That is, we can do a simple and fast computation that reliably predicts Jupiter?s position. But there are many physical systems whose behaviour cannot be predicted in such a simple way ? for example, the weather, a powerful computer, or the human brain. Information theory tells us that we must simulate all their details to extreme accuracy to predict their behaviour reliably. This is the idea of computational irreducibility as proposed by Stephen Wolfram. Our project will explore the mathematical foundations and applications of computational irreducibility, and use this to argue that physics and free will are, surprisingly, fundamentally compatible.

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