Saturday, August 1, 2009

More about Determinism

This is a continuation of the last blog entry dealing with the conflicts between the two types of determinism and our commonly held belief that we all have free will.

If we buy the idea that physics applies to everything—that is, that in principle everything is reducible to physics—then Type 1 determinism is inescapable. The universe is just a set of particles and energy fields which evolve according to set rules of behavior. It does not matter if the particles and fields are the ones we think we know of today, or whether the laws of physics that we think we know are even correct, or even approximately correct. The point is that the perspective of physics assumes that there are laws, and that all is mechanism deep down. The “conglomerates” that form, whether they are rocks, planets, molecules, or animals are not only subject to these laws, but all of the behavior of these forms is basically mechanical. The apparent ability of life forms to initiate movement is in this picture an illusion.

This picture is not changed even if we imagine that the idea of parallel universes is valid, for in the sense I am using the word universe it applies to everything that is, all of reality, whether we can see or detect it or not. Nor does anything change in this mechanistic picture if we suppose that the laws of physics or the associated “physical constants” change with time, provided we assume that there is some “meta law” that prescribes how these change.

To formalize this argument in a simple way, let’s denote the universe (in the sense described above) as U. Let’s imagine that a particular object (a clump of “stuff”) within it is X, and further that X is an animal that seemingly can spontaneously decide to initiate movement or action. On the mechanistic view, U’s future state is in entirely determined, as is every portion of it, including the component X. In fact, in a sense, there is no “future’ in this picture, because if we include time as a parameter, U is simply static. Let’s also imagine that there are no other life forms other than X---that is, U-X is non-life, so that from X’s viewpoint U-X is only undetermined because of his own influence on it. That is, X “imagines” that it is free to move and to create a future for itself that is not determined in advance. And since its “stuff” is part of U, it influence through mechanistic interactions U-X. But in the mechanistic view, X is not justified in believing this (of course, this belief is forced on X in the deterministic picture, which is just one of the many absurd aspects): X is just a portion of U, and evolves without any novelty emerging …all is essentially static, time is just a parameter. The future state is entirely fixed, and nothing creative or surprising can happen. The closed system never really changes…nor does any portion of it, such as our subject X.

In particular, as I said in the last blog entry, unless we assume that life forms are somehow different and at least partially outside the mere influence of mechanical forces, this picture is inescapable. Now if we imagine that the U is “tinkered with” on the outside (in some ‘space” or supernatural” realm) then non predictability enters, but it is not really due to the spontaneous motion of the animals(X’s), but rather it is being altered intermittently (or perhaps constantly) by an outside agent. This still does not seem to offer an escape from mechanism with the U….it just means that the U is an “open system”. It might still be closed, but at a “higher level” than U. Maybe we call refer to a meta U, U*, or something along that line.

Now, I argued in the previous blog entry that Type 2 determinism (the view that nature plus nurture plus randomness causes all animal behavior) is incompatible with the above Type 1 determinism. Type 2 tends to be the favored paradigm of the modern person, especially the social scientists of today (who also usually emphasize the “nurture” side of the mix, possibly for “politically correct” motives). If we try to imagine that both Type 1 determinism and Type 2 hold, then the behavior of X would seem to be “over-determined”. That is, the action of X must be “caused” (the premise of both types of determinism), and the action cannot be caused at once by both mechanisms. Either physics mechanisms (broadly understood) or nature plus nurture plus randomness must cause the animal’s action at any given time, not both.

Now, maybe the advocates of Type 2 really believe in Type 1, but think that this is not a useful picture, any more than it would be to try and understand the behavior of a computer purely in terms of the electron motions and currents in the wires and chips. That is, the Type 2 advocate might claim that they are taking a higher level of integration perspective, recognizing that, at some unfathomable level, Type 1 still rules. OK, but this would be beside the point philosophically---the point is that I do not see how one can avoid accepting Type 1 unless one postulates that life is something fundamentally different than the non-life stuff that obeys deterministic (mechanistic) laws. There is no way to get outside of this deterministic picture otherwise.

The key ingredient that is left out of this picture is “consciousness”, which is surely the most amazing and mystifying phenomena in the universe. Does anyone doubt that nebula and planetary system are subject to purely mechanical forces, and in fact would be totally determined by mechanical forces if there were no consciousness in the universe to inject novelty? Now, galaxies and nebula we know from Hubbell can be amazing and surprising to us viewing them, much in the way that fireworks displays astonish and wow us…but no one would claim these is any novelty in the sense of these being anything unpredictable in their behavior.

Somewhat oddly, it seems to be the people in the hard science of physics that tend to speculate that all is not physics. For example, the well known theoretical physicist A. Zee, in his masterful popular science book Fearful Symmetry says

“Ultimately, the discussion [regarding consciousness] comes down to the question of whether science can explain life; that is, whether there is a “life force”, for lack of a better term, outside the purview of rational thought. Is human consciousness merely the result of a bunch of neurons exchanging electromagnetic pulses? Is the thinking brain just a collection of quarks, gluons, and leptons” I don’t think so. Do I have a cogent reason? No, it is just that, as a physicist, I do not have enough hubris to believe that physics can be all encompassing……”.

I am pleased to see that I am in such good company in questioning whether all is mechanism. And today it must be hard for anyone in physics or cosmology to be smugly dogmatic in the opposite direction, in view of the recent discoveries of dark energy and dark matter. Though these do not fall outside the realm of mechanism, they do suggest we might be in for a lot of surprises about the nature of reality. And though I do not want to go into this here, some of the recent work in quantum mechanics suggests non local effects in the universe that seem to violate the classical thinking of cause and effect in a space time continuum.

But after all of this, I have to say that I find it very hard to escape from Type 2 determinism. What other factors could possibly be involved in a mental or physical decision and action? There seems to be no way to even frame the concept of “free will” that involves any factor outside of the nature-nurture-randomness axis. Anyone that is at all interested in this free will issue should read Martin Gardner’s chapter on this in his book “The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener”. In this brilliant essay, “Why I am not a Determinist or a Haphazardist” (the latter being the term he uses for a person believing that human action is caused by random influences), Gardner considers the relevant views of a great many philosophers and artists: Immanuel Kant, William James, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Sarah Teasdale, Alfred North Whitehead, C. S. Lewis, Spinoza, Samuel Johnson, and H. L. Mencken, to list just a few. Gardner seems to conclude that the best we can do when considering the issue of free will and determinism is to fathom its incomprehensibility.

[to be continued]

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