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Life is full of choices. Do we have a cookie or go to the gym? Do we binge watch our favorite show on Netflix or go to bed at a reasonable time? Our choices have consequences, and we make them of our own free will. Or do we?

The nature of free will has long inspired philosophical debates, but it also raises a central question about the fundamental nature of the universe. Is the cosmos governed by strict physical laws that determine its fate from the big bang until the end of time? Or do the laws of nature sometimes allow for things to happen at random? A century-old series of physics experiments still hasn’t been able to settle the question, but a new experiment has tilted the odds toward the latter by performing a quantum experiment across billions of light-years.

The laws of classical physics are deterministic. Newton’s mathematical cosmos is a clockwork universe, where each cause has a unique effect and we are governed not by our choices but by the rigid laws of nature. Quantum physics, on the other hand, has a property of fuzzy randomness, which some scientists feel could open the door to free will. Since quantum physics lies at the heart of reality, it would seem that randomness wins the day.

But some scientists have argued that quantum randomness isn’t truly random. If I roll a die the outcome seems random, but it isn’t really. All of its bumps and turns are caused by the forces of gravity and the table in a complex dance, but that dance is deterministic. The moment the die leaves my hand, its fate is sealed, even though I don’t know the outcome until it happens. Perhaps quantum objects behave in the same way. They seem to act in random ways, but they are really governed by some deterministic hidden variables.

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Category: Science