Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Determinism Part 3: Laplacian Determinism and how we can imagine animals are not bound by it.

Here I want to indulge in some speculations—admittedly a bit “out there”---on how an argument can be made to escape “Type 1 Determinism”. That type of determinism is the mechanism carried to the extreme, and was first advocated, as far as I know, by Laplace. I think it is also sometimes referred to as “naturalism”. In this picture, the universe is really just a collection of “mechanical” entities (particles and fields in the modern view) that obey fixed mechanistic laws, and any collocations of particles that comprise life forms are really just passive puppets moving in external forces. The apparent existence of choice and the ability to initiate movement are regarded as being just an illusion. All the dynamics of the universe, including the behavior of all life forms, is seen as just a huge extension of a small number of particles bouncing around in a box, but is thought to be, in principle, no different. No novelty will really ever emerge, taking the universe as a whole. Time is just an illusion also, because the future is every bit as determined as the past. The universe, as complex as it is, is really just in a static state.

I should point out that the strength of the mechanistic argument in no way depends on any assumption about how complete our knowledge is regarding the laws that matter and fields obey. Rather, it just hinges on the assumption that there are such laws, which may or may not eventually be exhaustively discovered.

It is not easy to see a way out of this mechanistically constrained picture, but I think a way out can be found: I want to suggest that life originated as a kind of Phase transition, maybe analogous in some ways—although far more astounding----to a phenomena such as superconductivity or Bose condensation. Perhaps it is an inherently quantum mechanical transition, involving coherent interactions among the parts of an incipient life system. Now, the “laws of physics” are not, to my notion, really laws in the sense that the particles and fields must “obey” them. Rather, we human observers have inferred that the particles and fields behave in certain ways that can be described by laws, which usually take the form of equations. These behavioral laws have been abstracted from observing non-living stuff, i.e., inanimate matter, matter that is not in the phase transitioned state we call life.

So I suggest that a living system involves motions of its constituent particles that are partially but not completely described according to the way inanimate matter behaves. When the phase transition occurs to a non living system---i.e., death occurs—then the motions of the parts of the matter that constituted the living system are again entirely mechanistically determined. Now of course the mechanistic behavior exhibited by non living matter always partially—maybe I should say largely---determine the motion of the living system. If an animal decides to jump, its possible motion is still constrained by gravity. If I jump out of an airplane, gravity will pull me down to earth, but by choosing to maneuver my arms and body in some allowed manner and affecting the drag forces I can still affect the trajectory, at least in some small way. I cannot prevent the ultimate disastrous crash into the surface, but I can slightly alter exactly where and when I hit. The centrifugal force of a turning car we ride in will affect our body, by we could decide to stand or lie down, and hence alter the exact manner of how we are pushed or shoved by the apparent inertial force.

Now one might protest that Quantum mechanics is still deterministic, and that postulating that life systems are quantum mechanical does not afford a way out of mechanism. The argument would go that there is still a wave function of the total Universe, and this evolves deterministically when all forces, energies, and fields are accounted for. But as I understand Quantum mechanics, the wave function collapses to a definite state only when a conscious subject interferes with the surrounding physical system, makes a measurement of it in effect, and forces it into some definite state that we can understand ‘classically”. So the point is that we have no reason to think we can apply the ideas of quantum mechanics to the Universe as a whole, since conscious beings are known to be part of the Universe. Only a being outside the Universe could view it as being deterministic. Conscious beings within it can only look at portions of the non living world, and it begs the question to try to imagine that we can talk about the wave function of the universe, as that would require a conscious being or beings outside the universe. It can only be a part of the universe that is described by a wave function.

Once the phase transition to a proto living system occurred, I can imagine that it “gave off fragments of itself” that remain in a coherent state. Rather in the way that a small fire might give off sparks that give rise to other small fires. Evolution, as imagined by conventional evolutionary biology (Darwin-Dawkins) might then occur. Perhaps a contributing factor to the first phase transition to life might have been the radical non-equilibrium nature of the earth-sun interaction, to take an example from earth.

Is this a form of “Cartesian Dualism”? No not really; rather it is just an argument that the laws of physics that apply to inanimate matter only partially apply to living matter, a collection of matter that has gone through a phase transition to a coherent state that can initiate motions not determined by all the rest of the matter and energy in the universe. Maybe we could say that universe is so configured that it permits the phase transition to living, and perhaps ultimately conscious, sub-states.

Now, this argument does nothing to escape from Type 2 Determinism---the idea that an information system can only do what its hardware and its experiences lead it to do (and well, we can throw in random, or haphazard influences as well). None of these leave any room for that odd ability we all think and assume we have, namely free will. I want to turn to that next—so, “to be continued”.

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