Conway-Kochen Free Will Theorem: Lecture series

Some time ago, there was a bit of excitement when researchers John H. Conway (best known to geeks as the inventor of The Game of Life, a Turing-complete cellular automaton) and Simon Kochen (best known to geeks as, um, okay, he's not known to geeks) concluded that if human beings have free will, then so too do elementary particles.

In 2009, Conway gave a series of six one-hour lectures on this theorem. The lectures have been recorded and are available online. (I also found a nice summary of a public lecture by John Conway on the same subject, for those who are impatient and just want the one-page version.)

Bonus Conway Chatter: There are actually two noted mathematicians named John Conway. In addition to John H. Conway, whose work leans more toward group and number theory, there is also John B. Conway, whose work is primarily in functional analysis. (In a rough sense, John H. Conway studies discrete things, whereas John B. Conway studies continuous things.) The group theorist is by far the more famous of the two, and he told me that he had the opportunity to meet with his functional analysis counterpart, who noted that people outside the upper echelons of mathematics often mistook him for the far more famous group theorist.

"When I'm introduced to people, they will recognize the name and say, 'Oh, Dr. Conway, it's such a pleasure to meet you. I'm a big fan of the Game of Life.' I then have to tell them that they are thinking of the other John Conway."

Which is why John H. Conway was amused when he was introduced at some mathematics get-together or other, and the other person enthusiastically responded, "Oh, Dr. Conway, it's such a pleasure to meet you. I'm a big fan of your book on complex variables."

Comments (12)
  1. Oddly, my geek knowledge of John (H.) Conway comes from his book Winning Ways.  I knew of the Game of Life but didn’t connect it with the same author.

  2. Robo says:

    I didn’t watch/read the lectures – but this is already obvious to me – we don’t have free will. However, the human brain/our environment is so chaotic (as in chaos theory) that it appears as if we have free will.

  3. Gwyn says:

    Therefore by reductio ad absurdum, I conclude that humans do not have free will.

  4. Joseph Koss says:

    Its the path of least resistance all the way.

  5. porter says:

    Life, don’t talk to me about Life. – Marvin the Paranoid Android.

  6. Stephen Jones says:

    When Bernard Spolsky, Joel Spolsky’s father and a noted academic in EFL and Applied Linguistics introduces himself to people at parties, they often say

    ‘But you’re a footnote!’

  7. DysgraphicProgrammer says:

    So we don’t have free will. But we have to act as if we do, because we believe we do. As much as I can accept intelectually that I have no free will, I do not really believe it emotionally. I make decisions, and I do not know what I will decide until I have decided.

  8. Boronx says:

    "So we don’t have free will."  

    Why do you say that?  Our best theory is that particles are unpredictable, their actions aren’t predestined.  It’s at least an open question whether particles have free will.

    We seem to be exquisitely formed amplifiers that are capable of rapidly expanding tiny variations in particle level events into enormous physical change.

  9. mikeb says:

    Of course, all of this depends on how you define free will – it sould simply be the tipping point of a large enough collection of those quantum events.

    Of course if you ascribe to the reductio ad absurdum argument that there is no free will, then of course there’s no such thing as theft.

    I’ll be over later – thanks for all your stuff.

  10. Peter Bindels says:

    How can you conclude that you have no free will? Isn’t that exactly the kind of thing you need free will to do?

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