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.
One distinction you 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 personal tastes. Posts that reflect the author’s art — be it humor, photography, poetry or fiction — usually rate a ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thanks’ comment.
But some topics can foment debates that go back and forth over a topic. As someone who loves a good debate, I enjoy 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.
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.
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.
And there are other factors that apply; some 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.
The 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.
That’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 this:
- We have souls, a spirituality, that lifts us above mere physical existence.
- The mind somehow transcends the machinery of the brain.
- 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.
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.
Some 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).
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. Your entire existence is a film unwinding, and you have no more choice in life than do the actors in a film.
No matter how many times you 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’m all for enjoying life, but in a fully determined universe, how you 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.