In a universe that unthinkingly follows the rules, human agency is an anomaly. Can physics ever make sense of our power to change the physical world at will?
12 February 2020
By Richard Webb
I’VE been thinking about getting a puppy. You know, for a bit of companionship, something to motivate on grey days when spirit and flesh are weak.
I even went to a stray dogs’ home, because that seemed the right thing to do. There was a lovely one there, with beautiful, mischievous eyes. She reminded me of a mutt we had when I was a kid, called Whiskey. I bottled it in the end, though. Did I really have the time to give her the love and attention she deserved?
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Whims, memories, hopes, judgements, morals, qualms – all coming together to influence decisions. It is hard enough for us to understand how we reach them. For fundamental physicists, it is a complete mystery. That is because our decision-making ability is a not-so-secret superpower to alter the physical world, changing its evolution apparently at will – something no physical law yet devised can explain.
“We act, we decide, we initiate actions,” says Carlo Rovelli at Aix-Marseille University in France. “How can we insert this agency into the general picture of nature?”
Rovelli and others have undertaken to find out. Their journey has led them into the depths of the human mind and its relationship with physical reality, throwing up surprising and profound connections: to the mysteries of entropy and flowing time, to reality and consciousness, and to the nature of physical law itself. Get to grips with what underlies our everyday acts, and we could be on the way to a deeper, all-inclusive understanding of both the cosmos and our place in it. …