Determined Thoughts

Rene Descartes

I think, I think.

A bit more than three years ago I began this blog intending to write about matters of existence and consciousness (and science and computing). Since then, I’ve tried on other hats, stories from my past and present, opinions and views about society, even the occasional post above movies or TV. But those meatier topics — the ones the blog is named for — still attract me.

There are three problems, though. Firstly, other sites specialize in that sort of thing and do it very well. Secondly, they aren’t topics that attract visitors — my meaty posts get even fewer reads than my less weighty posts. And thirdly, I may not be as good as explaining things as I would like to be.

That said, sometimes I just can’t help myself, so here we go again.

In exploring the blogsphere, I find many enjoyable, interesting blogs. Some focus on writing, humor or relating real-life tales and observations. Some chose to focus on books, movies, music or television. Others focus on some aspect of craft, cooking or photography. And some focus on intellectual areas, such as philosophy, religion or existence.

debateA distinction one can make is between blogs that raise topics prone to debate and those that chose uncontroversial paths.

While it’s possible to get into a discussion on movies, for instance, most such tend to reflect subjective tastes.

Posts that reflect the author’s art — be it humor, photography, poetry, or fiction — usually have comment sections filled with ‘thumbs up’ or other positive comments.

But some topics can foment debates that go back and forth (seemingly endlessly, in some cases).

As someone who loves a good debate, I have enjoyed those immensely. I know there are those who dislike debate — perhaps seeing it as too close to argument — but I love it. For one thing, it’s a form of mental exercise that I think is healthy for the intellect.

And one often learns a thing or two in the process.


Physical determinism implies that we have no more free will than do these dominoes.

Two years ago, I got into a debate where the idea of determinism was a key part of the discussion.

That debate never went anywhere, because the other party didn’t seem to fully appreciate what physical determinism involved. Despite several attempts, I was never able to get that across, and ultimately we both just walked away from the table.

So, I sat down and began to write a couple posts here to try to explain in greater detail what determinism really implies. That way, if our discussion resumed, I could reference these posts to — hopefully — help move things along.

Well, with one thing and another, this has been sitting in my Drafts folder for over two years!

In the last six, maybe nine, months, I’ve found myself debating atheism and spirituality on at least four other blogs. Because determinism is an important aspect of such discussions, it seemed like a good time to dust off these posts and have another go at the topic.

Let me start by defining what we mean by physical determinism.

The short version is that it means future events are fully determined by past events. How far you can drive is determined largely by how much gas you have in the car. It also is determined by engine’s gas mileage and whether you are driving uphill or downhill.

car mileageAnd there are other factors that apply; some of which can be subtle or hard to quantify.

For example, how inflated (or not) your tires are affects your mileage. So does the condition of your engine; maybe it’s not getting the mileage it could if you changed the spark plugs.

It can even be determined by your driving technique.

The important fact is that in a mechanical universe, if we could know and measure all the physical factors, we could determine in advance exactly how far your car will go.

The more precisely we measure those factors and calculate their effects, the more precisely we determine the distance. In theory, it is possible to determine the distance to the millimeter.

car driverThe reason we can do this is because, at the level of cars, physical reality is deterministic.

The mechanical forces involved all obey the laws of physics precisely. As with balls on a pool table, the effect of hitting the cue ball just so causes a known result (because physics).

But what about the driver of the car?

I mentioned that driving technique affects mileage, so what if the driver chooses to drive differently, thus confounding our calculations. That brings us to the real meat of this post.

If the universe is fully deterministic, then people are just like cars, or balls on the pool table, and our actions are as fully determined as for any machine.

That’s a rather mind-blowing concept, because we are used to assuming we go through our days picking and choosing our actions more or less on the spot.

We tend to believe that we have free will that steers our ship into the future.

But if the universe is fully deterministic, that perception is an illusion.

mind gearsThat’s a freaky idea to contemplate.

That the rich inner life we all experience is just a predetermined movie created by past events. Our actions are no more freely chosen than the actions of our car engines.

What makes it seem undetermined is the vast number of factors involved.

It is extremely difficult to know — let alone measure — all the factors that go into the mechanics of the car situation. The factors involved in the moments of our days make that look like child’s play.

There are, as far as I know, only three ways out of this:

  1. We have souls, a spirituality, that lifts us above mere physical existence.
  2. The mind somehow transcends the machinery of the brain.
  3. In some fashion, quantum physics plays a role in our consciousness.

The first requires believing the physical universe is not the only reality, that there is a meta-reality of some kind. Nearly all religious belief falls into this category, so nearly all religions do not subscribe to a deterministic reality. If you believe in God, your mind, your soul, provides you with free will.

Data from Star Trek

Machine… Mind?

The second might also provide free will, but so far we do not understand what the mind really is. We do not understand how consciousness comes from the machine of our brain. Some believe that mind is nothing more than what happens with a brain.

If we build a machine that acts like a brain, when we turn it on, we’ll have a mind (like Data from Star Trek, for example).

This still doesn’t mean such a machine mind (or our mind) wouldn’t be deterministic. All computer programs in use today are fully deterministic. Of course, all computer programs in use today do not rise to become minds. They are nothing more than over-blown calculators. Two plus two is always four.

For free will, the mind must transcend the machinery of the brain in a way that allows true choice. For that to occur, something must elevate the mind above the chemical processes of our brain. Chemistry is a classical process; it is fully deterministic. Past events control what happens in future chemical reactions.

quantum brainSome feel the third option might play a role in consciousness. Quantum physics features the only truly random events we know (and there is some debate as to whether such events are, in fact, random).

The problem is that quantum effects occur at the micro level. They are swamped out (decohere) at the macro level. Our world proceeds at the macro level, so it’s hard to see how quantum effects create randomness in reality. No one has found a connection thus far.

The sun (and all stars) work due to quantum effects, so without quantum effects, life would not exist at all.

There is also something called a Bose-Einstein condensate, where a macro-sized object exhibits quantum behavior.

And it’s possible to amplify quantum effects to the macro level and thus build a machine that exhibits true random behavior (as opposed to the pseudo-random numbers computers usually generate).

Rick and Ilsa

Think maybe this time he might change his mind?

However, as far as we know now, the machinery of the brain doesn’t use quantum effects.

That suggests our brains are deterministic machines, and if so they are nothing more than very complex clocks.

Out entire existence is a film unwinding, and we have no more choice in life than do the actors in a film.

No matter how many times we watch Casablanca, Rick always lets Ilsa go.

You can’t even choose — and this was the focal point of the debate I mentioned — to have an opinion about this. In a fully determined universe, every opinion, every choice, is part of the script.

The idea that nothing you do ever involves any sort of free will or choice is an idea that most have a tough time wrapping their head around. It can be hugely depressing for many.

The blogger’s point was that, even so, we seem to have free will and choice, so we might as well just enjoy life. I quite agree!

hand played

Maybe. Maybe not.

I’m all for enjoying life, but in a fully determined universe, how we feel about this — or anything — is a script written long, long ago.

Some raise the topic of chaos mathematics, but chaos, despite its name, is fully determined. I’ll get more into that aspect next time.

The bottom line is this: as far as science can tell, at our macro level the universe is fully deterministic, and that includes our minds, our every thought.

It is only through appeal to one of the three ideas listed above that we can escape that conclusion.

The first idea involves faith and belief.

The second idea is a key unresolved scientific question.

The third idea does not appear to be the case, as far as we can tell.

So, the movie rolls on?

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

16 responses to “Determined Thoughts

  • reocochran

    I believe that the ball or world got started with a good beginning, possibly God and the Adam and Eve story. This could be worked into the appropriate time frame of bones and when we have scientific and archaeological proof of life. Humans would be after dinosaurs and the “7 days” in the Bible, I believe, represent periods of time. I also believe God loves us, but cannot prevent or help us, when we make wrong choices. Also, babies and ‘good’ people sometimes will die, because God will not stop the ‘ball’ from rolling (or situations like cancer, accidents and other sad things.) He wishes we would have stayed in the Garden but mankind is ‘human’ after all, tempted and makes mistakes…

    I believe God doesn’t dislike other faiths, he is not Christian or any other ones specifically. I do believe we can make choices but still have bad results, due to the world having variations and yet, God knows our heart, so if we are struck dead, babies are afflicted with illnesses, He welcomes us at the end of our Journey.

    My Dad was an Episcopalian, a scientist and inventor. He would ask, “How big is your God?” often to Jewish, Catholic, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other faiths. He questioned my Aunt and Uncle who felt you needed to go through total immersion (baptism) and not through little sprinkles of water to become ‘saved.’ A lot of my beliefs stem from the time when I know my Dad ‘died’ and yet, went through the whole process of the tunnel, light and came ‘back to life,’ after flat-lining to live 4 more years. When he was ‘saved’ he proclaimed to many around him at the hospital, “If I can make it to (what he believed was) Heaven, surely you can too!”

    I feel God ‘knows’ our hearts and follows us all, he does wish for us to be part of His Kingdom. I cannot think that illness is considered predetermined, but is ‘allowed’ through the randomness of our lives. Lots of silly thoughts, maybe not a good explanation nor worthy of debate. But it is raining, I worked since 7 am and wished to at least know I ‘gave this post’ my best shot, for a tired woman… smiles!

    • Wyrd Smythe

      This post wasn’t really intended to get into religion, so I won’t go into it too much right now — there are posts in the past (and will be posts in the near future) on that topic where we can get more into it if you like.

      Suffice for now to say I see the Garden of Eden story as just a story. If you study religious history, you find that it’s a conflation of an ancient Hebrew creation myth and a myth about “Paradise Lost.” We know enough about the history of the Earth to know dinosaurs came millions of years before humans ever showed up, so life has a very long history pre-dating us.

      I am struck by the “Let there be light” part and how much it resembles the Big Bang. And I, too, tend to view the “seven days of creation” as metaphorical and actually consisting of eons. I do totally agree that God — assuming he exists — isn’t a Christian (or any other specific religion). Religions are human-created attempts to reconcile our apprehension of meaning.

      Fundamentally (no pun intended), almost any belief in God allows for free will and choice. On that account, something that has always amused me about Christians is the whole idea that “God is responsible” for bad things that happen. Their own religion has as a central point that God gives us choice and power, and we can choose evil or we can choose good. Many bad things happen because people choose evil.

      As for the random awful events that befall good people — take earthquakes and tidal waves, for example — to me that almost seems evidence God does not play a role in individual lives. It’s hard to credit an “all powerful” and “all good” God with allowing that sort of thing.

      But there is an interesting argument to be made that you can’t have a wonderful world without also having a awful world. No highs without lows, otherwise the highs don’t mean anything.

      Or… we’re all just kidding ourselves, and the universe is just a big clock. [shrug]

  • Doobster418

    Wow. A very interesting and thought-provoking post, Wyrd.

    Okay, I don’t know enough about quantum physics to make an intelligent comment on this post. But such limitations rarely stop me from making a comment nonetheless. You know I will dismiss #1 because I dismiss all of what’s contained therein as merely a human contrivance. As to #3, see my first sentence in this comment.

    So that brings me to #2. And I suppose I choose to believe that the mind is greater than the machinery of the brain in the same sense that we often say the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I have never believed in the notion of pre-destination or pre-determination or that our fates are sealed and, to use your actors in a play analogy, there’s nothing we can do to change the course of our lives. But that is merely my opinion, that is my belief. I have no idea if I’m right or wrong and no way to prove or disprove my opinion. And that may be due to this thing that the mind (or the machinery that is the mind) has created. Something called ego. Who knows?

    • Wyrd Smythe

      “But that is merely my opinion, that is my belief. I have no idea if I’m right or wrong and no way to prove or disprove my opinion.”

      If you’re going to believe in something you cannot prove merely because you hope it’s right, perhaps you should consider being less dismissive of those who have spiritual beliefs essentially founded on the same account. 😛

      The idea that mind transcends brain is something we all want to believe, but at this point we have no idea how that could be possible and there is no direct evidence it is so. (Kind of like there is no direct evidence God — in any form — exists.)

      There are those who believe in “hard A.I.” which the idea that mind is entirely mechanistic. They hold that someday machines will think just like us (or better!) and, further, that we will be able to download our minds into machines.

      (“Soft A.I.” is the obvious idea that computers can be programmed by experts to be expert help. We’re already well into the era of soft A.I. and expert systems.)

      We do often say the whole is greater than the parts, but that’s rarely literally true. What is true is that parts in aggregate can accomplish things the individual parts don’t have the power or ability to do (grains of sand versus sand-blasting, for one example), but the actual forces involved are well-understood and don’t result in any mysterious synergy.

      In the same sense that we may someday have to accept that we invented God and that a physical universe is it, we may also need to accept that — despite all our apparent free will — it is just an illusion created by the complexities involved.

      In the same way we cannot predict the weather — even though it is, in principle, possible — we cannot predict the future — even though it is entirely predetermined.

      And like I said, most people have a really hard time trying to absorb this. People who believe in some sort of spirituality or soul have an easy out. People who don’t… well the prognosis is kinda bleak.

  • Doobster418

    “If you’re going to believe in something you cannot prove merely because you hope it’s right, perhaps you should consider being less dismissive of those who have spiritual beliefs essentially founded on the same account.” Perhaps if those who have spiritual beliefs founded on the same account were willing to accept that they have no proof and that it nothing more than their personal beliefs and opinions and were not so dismissive of, and full of condemnation toward, those who don’t believe as they believe, I would be less dismissive.

    I like to consider myself to be an intelligent person, but to tell you the truth, Wyrd, I don’t let things like this hurt my head too much. One of the advantages of being an atheist is that I don’t believe there is an afterlife. Hence, I need to make the most of this, the only life I believe I will ever experiences. And trying to spend the little time I have figuring out if my life has been pre-determined or if my mind is nothing more than a mechanical process or is something more is not how I choose to spend my time. Interesting to contemplate, but not something I lose sleep over.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      You might be surprised how many people with spiritual beliefs are not at all “dismissive of, and full of condemnation toward, those who don’t believe as they believe.” It’s always those squeaky wheels that get noticed — you shouldn’t judge a thing by its worst representatives. There is also that, if you would really hold yourself in a better light than them, acting just like them is counter-productive.

      Here’s an exercise for you. Take your second paragraph above, replace “atheist” with “theist” and remove the word “don’t” in front of “believe there is an afterlife.” Now pretend a religious person said that to you in an argument about religion. You might see why I tease you so much that your atheism is a religion. 😀

      And it is just teasing and the game called “Let’s have a debate!” It’s nothing personal and in no way meant to be any kind of attack. It is a favorite topic of mine, and I just can’t resist stirring the pot. I’m not trying to persuade you to change your views, but I am trying to show you more of the territory than you may realize exists. Make of you a better-informed atheist, if you will. 🙂

  • Doobster418

    Yes, I am all too familiar with the squeaky wheel theory. And I don’t hold myself in a “better light than them,” just in a more rational light.

    No worries, Wyrd. I didn’t at all take your “let’s have a debate” in a personal way. I love a good debate. And you should know that I am also one who, on occasion, likes to stir the pot. But when it comes to the topic of pre-destination versus free will, it’s not something I feel strongly enough to get into a deep debate over. I don’t believe in the former and do believe in the latter, but unlike some other beliefs that people have, I see no real harm in either position, so no reason to debate.

    Now let’s talk about the Giants and Royals. There’s a good topic for debate about to commence in about 24 hours.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      You don’t believe “more rational” is better than less rational? (I sure as hell do!) But enough! You believe what you believe and you’re not going to think about it too deeply or debate it. Check. Got it! Case file closed! 🙂

      As to the Giants and Royals… I think I mentioned earlier I figured KC had a tough slog ahead. The Giants are quite experienced in W.S. games, the Royals not so much. The post-season stats for the Royals are slightly better than the Giants, but many feel that may be due to their opponents fading to some degree. I would agree with that vis-a-vis the Angels. Not so sure I would about the Orioles, though. Those were hard- and well-fought games.

      On the other hand, people (i.e. baseball analysts) have also been talking about how many games the Giants won by means other than straight runs. That 10th inning bunt Choate air-mailed over Adams head, for example. So Giants’ experience and general fierceness against the possibility they, too, might be running low on gas? If I were a betting man, I’d still bet Giants.

      Despite having actually worked in Vegas, I don’t understand gambling. One site says the Royals are 10/11 and the Giants are 1/1. Does that mean a $10 bet on the Royals pays off at $11 if they win? And the Giants pay off at even? I’m probably wrong — totally not my thing. But it sounds like the odds are pretty even? So no one really knows?

      My fantasy wish #1 is that both teams win all their home games in exciting nail-biters. Fun for the home town crowds and extends the Series to all seven games.

      My fantasy wish #2 (failing #1) is that it goes seven exciting games. (With, of course, wish #2b — Royals do win. Giants have had their share; Royals “deserve” it. (I know, I know. There’s no deserving in baseball.))

      Failing that, wish #3 is the Royals at least win the first (and second?) games. As it stands now, they’ve busted the post-season record for consecutive starting games, but are tied with your Bo-Sox for consecutive games in any part of post-season. Winning the first game tomorrow would give the Royals a new MLB record.

      Failing all that, I just hope the Royals don’t get swept. :\

      (I have a Rangers fan friend who thinks there should be an asterisk involved. WC games only date back to 2012, and the Division series only to 1995. Prior to ’95, eight was the most consecutive games anyone could win in post-season. But as of ’95, the possible total goes up to 11, as as of 2012, it would be possible for a Wildcard team to win 12 if they swept the table. The Royals are the first team to have that opportunity, and of such stuff are dreams made! 😀 )

      • Doobster418

        Oh yes, I definitely believe more rational is better than less rational. What I was attempting to say is that I consider myself more rational than those squeaky wheelers you were referring to.

        As to the WS, everything I’ve seen and read puts the Giants as underdogs and leads to KC in 7. Of course, I’ve always been a fan of the underdogs, so that’s fine with me. I, too, would like to see each team win their home games, except for game 7. Then I’d like to see the visiting team win.

        Anyway, it will be a fun series. I would have preferred, of course, to have the Red Sox and the Giants, but you can’t always get what you want, right?

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “But if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need!” 😀

        The Giants as the underdogs? Wow. The champs of ‘010 and ‘012 the underdogs? Oohhh..kay. :\

        But I agree — should be a fun series. And the last MLB baseball we’ll see until next spring. 😦

  • dianasschwenk

    So how about this Smitty. In Christianity, we’re told we have free choice. We’re also told that we are predestined to believe or not believe.

    Sounds like a contradiction, right? What if both statements are true in that we only experience our lives in relation to time. We have a past, a present and a future. What if God sees it all at once and thus what we consider our end when it is experienced in our present is already known when we are still at the beginning?

    Egads, just re-read that and hope I’m making sense enough for you to understand what I mean!

    Diana xo

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I don’t know if you read my reply above to Robin — I touched on the Christian concept of free-will and choice there. I don’t think I’ve ever heard we’re predestined to believe or not (that does seem contradictory), but I have heard often that (the Christian) God does know what (all) your choice(s) will be.

      And, absolutely, if God sees all of time and space, then He would know the “film strip” of our lives and thus knows what choices we’ll make. If we really do have free-will, then I assume he sees all the possible choices, since a fixed future does imply lack of choice.

      There is even some physics behind the idea that the future already exists and we just haven’t gotten there yet. The whole concept of “past” and “future” and “now” is an interesting one (I actually have a post in my Drafts folder about that — should be coming soon).

      What’s really interesting is how a post that doesn’t mention God once and only touches on the area of spirituality has resulted in all comments so far being about God (or the lack of one). It’s like you guys already know where I’m going with this. 😀

      • dianasschwenk

        God told me haha! 😉

        Seriously though, I did a quick google search on predestination in the Bible and found this romans 8:28-30:

        “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.”

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I’ll bet you didn’t find many occurrences of the word, though. That passage from Romans has it twice, and depending on which version of The Bible you use, it only occurs twice or four other times in the NT. And if you poke around, you’ll find there is some debate as to exactly what it means.

        One view, which we’ve touched on, is that it translates more as “foreknowledge” than “destiny.” The other view is that it does indeed imply destiny. I think most modern views lean towards “foreknowledge” with regard to people in general.

        Just to natter on about this a bit… The Book of Romans is the Apostle Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and as such reflects Paul’s vision of Christianity. The thing about Paul is that, if you’re going to take him literally, he’s kind of a hard-liner.

        He had a very dim view of homosexuality, for example (Romans 1:24-27). He’s also blamed for the disenfranchise of women in Christianity (1 Timothy 2:9-15), but in his defense there are differing views on how much that’s actually true (see Romans 16, for example).

        And Romans 7:1-3 basically prohibits divorce — only a husband’s death releases a woman from marriage. (So our relationship with spirituality shouldn’t be tied too closely with the views and knowledge of 2000 years ago. We need to take into account the evolution of society and knowledge and understanding.)

        I’m just saying it’s important to view The Bible as a whole; specific passages reflect the ideas of their authors and translators throughout history. Romans 8:28-30 is part of a larger section, Romans 8:18-30.

        At the least, take verses 26-30 as a whole. Importantly, verse 27: “And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” (Emphasis mine.)

        The phrase “those whom he foreknew” and “firstborn among many brothers” refers, at least to some extent, to the saints (Moses, for example). God foreknew them and called them to serve His works, because he already knew them. It’s also about those God calls first to work for the salvation of all.

        The idea that we have free choice is a much stronger message throughout the NT, so I think it trumps the idea of destiny or determination.

        Just as an aside, for my money, Christianity is best summed up by Matthew 22:34-40.

  • reocochran

    Glad you set me straight, since I thought determinism was part of some peoples’ religion. Apparently not, you say in your response. Good to know! Smiles, Robin

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Religious predestination definitely is part of some religions (see the conversation with Diana above); it just wasn’t the topic of this post, which was about scientific, or causal, determinism. A discussion about religious beliefs in general is opening a whole other kettle of fish!

And what do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: