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April 18, 2007

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That's a wonderful song and album. Dement's voice is perhaps an acquired taste but I love everything about that cd. Her later work doesn't approach this level, unfortunately.

"Assuming you define free will in a way that allows for the fact that every human being is a product of his own nature and his environment, and not as some ideal by which human impulses spring from nothingness (a phenomenon which would be indistinguishable from madness, I'd think), why do you think "free will" and a naturalistic world view are incompatible?"

I think a hard naturalistic world view would be: What seems like free will is actually the fact that every human being is dictated to by his nature and his environment such that they have absolutely no control other than what all the inputs say the output must be.

Under such a view it is nonsense to say "He chose to sacrifice himself so his students could escape." Rather "A complex interaction between his genes and his environmental experiences over the course of his life conditioned him in such a way that he was compelled to use his body to block the door in response to the idea of a shooter coming in the door."

Rather "A complex interaction between his genes and his environmental experiences over the course of his life conditioned him in such a way that he was compelled to use his body to block the door in response to the idea of a shooter coming in the door."

IMO, that's true.

but, because knowing exactly what all those inputs are is currently (and maybe forever) impossible, we have to deal with people and their actions as if 'free will' really exists. it's an abstraction, in a way, but it's the only thing that makes sense in real life.

so, you can have your free will cake, and i can eat it, too.

"because knowing exactly what all those inputs are is currently (and maybe forever) impossible, we have to deal with people and their actions as if 'free will' really exists."

I don't understand why what comes after the comma follows from what is before. Why couldn't we just say "it was out of his control for reasons we don't fully understand."

Interesting to me – religious threads here always go many comments, >100.

Putting on my GOP “winger” cap – I’d be amazed at all these “Godless” libirlz that either are devout or have a broad knowledge of religion.

But that would shatter a stereotype so I shan’t go there…

Hard to keep the chin up these days...

what an utterly mechanistic approach.

crystals self-organize into complex patterns. crows demonstrate problem-solving and planning for the future. elephants and bonobos act in ways we call altruism and empathy. scientists from various disciplines are still grappling with the very definition of "consciousness".

simplified notions of newtonian physics (particle A bangs into particle B) are extraordinarily ill-suited to explain the biological world. Reducing human or other animal behavior to high-school physics is a modeling exercise unlikely to reach useful conclusions.

in the absence of a better model, "free will" is as useful a description of human conduct as any, and better than most.

You'll have to excuse me as it's late and the subject is a bottomless pit.

Putting on my GOP “winger” cap – I’d be amazed at all these “Godless” libirlz that either are devout or have a broad knowledge of religion.

It's much easier to hate what you know OCS! ;-)

"Dante who put them into the limbo (did he invent it??) instead got into trouble because of that (i.e. for believing that they are not tortured in eternity)."

Err, Dante put them in the First Circle of Hell, with the Righteous Pagans. Not tortured, but no bliss either.

Rather "A complex interaction between his genes and his environmental experiences over the course of his life conditioned him in such a way that he was compelled to use his body to block the door in response to the idea of a shooter coming in the door."

This sounds uncomfortably like Randy Waterhouse's imaginary atheist, tho I presume Sebastian offers it as some kinda reductio.

(Speaking of which, you lurking Ab_Normal, there are many examples in Cryptonomicon of Stephenson's being relatively sympathetic to religion, tho not necessarily from a believer's standpoint. I'm thinking of Enoch Root, most obviously, and bits like Randy's friends who secretly take their kids to Sunday school. I would be curious to see if an interviewer's picked up on that, tho not curious enough right now to google for it.)

Err, Dante put them in the First Circle of Hell, with the Righteous Pagans.

That *is* Limbo. Because Wiki don't lie.

First Circle of Hell

Wasn’t that tax day? You mean it gets worse?!?

Why couldn't we just say "it was out of his control for reasons we don't fully understand."

even if there is such a thing as a supernatural 'free will', we wouldn't be able to know, for certain, anyone's reasons for doing anything, without them telling us all their motivations, all the details of their situation, everything that crossed their mind while deciding to do what they did, etc.. we barely pay attention to our own motivations sometimes, let alone dig around any analyze everything that leads to them, and what leads to them, frame-by-frame - we'd drown in our own analysis.

so, we could throw our hands up and say we don't know. but, most of the time, we can make educated guesses about the high-level state of all those inputs and underlying processes, and come up with explanations that are good enough for everyday use. there are a dozen different reasons i ate some ham last night at 11:30. but "i was hungry and it was easy to reach" is good enough.

or, as Francis just wrote: in the absence of a better model, "free will" is as useful a description of human conduct as any, and better than most.

Wasn’t that tax day? You mean it gets worse?!?

well, there's tax day. and then there's 1st 1/4 1/4ly tax day. and then 2nd 1/4 1/4ly tax day, 3rd, 4th... and then it's tax day again.

it's not the circle of life, it's the circle of taxes. death is a vector - unless you're Hindu.

"or, as Francis just wrote: in the absence of a better model, "free will" is as useful a description of human conduct as any, and better than most."

So at that point we really don't have much of a way to distinguish the 'materialist' view and the 'spiritual' view then? Preference between the two is just (ahem) a matter of choice?

(Or if you are a materialist, you only believe the materialist world-view because of the way your environmental inputs interface with your nature, not because it has any objective truth). ;)

So at that point we really don't have much of a way to distinguish the 'materialist' view and the 'spiritual' view then?

well, one thinks there are natural, though horribly complex, reasons for what we do. the other thinks there are ... friendly ghosts(?) ... residing in us, telling us what to do.

not knowing everything about my car doesn't mean i think my car is inhabited be a supernatural car ghost.

Color me as unconvinced that even a very strict materialism requires determinism. I think it's two separate issues conflated for reasons of temperament and history rather than necessity.

"Color me as unconvinced that even a very strict materialism requires determinism."

As a physicist I think determinism is a feature of any universe; the other option seems to be determinism with deep-level randomness, which is if anything worse for free will and other ponyisms.

It's sorta hard to make sense of free will whether one is a Christian or not, unless you reduce it to a triviality--we are free to do what we want if no one is coercing us. I read some of Jonathan Edwards online a few months ago (no links--it was someplace, appropriately enough, at the Calvin College website) and with some discrete editing (removal of all the God talk, basically) it could have been written by some modern materialist.

Not that I'm taking a firm position myself--I suspect we Christians who argue about it are trying too hard to understand how God sees things, which, if you think about it, is silly. And if I was a materialist, I'd probably join in with the "mysterians" who think some issues might simply be beyond the human mind to understand. Why would natural selection have made us smart enough to figure out everything we might want to know, after all? Well, maybe it has, but it's not obvious that it would. The ability to understand how our own minds work isn't something that was selected for during the Pleistocene, unless the most philosophically-inclined caveman/woman were the winners in the reproduction lottery.

I enjoy reading about this, but (as is obvious) it's a little beyond me, whether or not it's beyond humans in general.

"I think it's two separate issues conflated for reasons of temperament and history rather than necessity."

Well of course with your nature and environmental inputs you'd believe that! [very playful grin]

let's see now.

on the spiritualist side: God(s) endow us with free will, expressed through our consciousness, which is returned to the bosom of God(s) upon our death as a departing soul.

on the materialist side: really bad episodes of Star Trek aside, there is no demonstrable evidence for a soul, nor for any particular God(s). That said, consciousness is a hard and interesting issue. But before we go bringing God(s) into play, it's worth noting that other animals apparently have varying levels of consciousness and free will. Under Xtian dogma, do elephants have fractional souls?

Personally, I cannot reconcile hard determinism and art. Leaving aside "free will" for a moment, the boundless expressions of human creativity persuades me that we are not automotons.

"Why would natural selection have made us smart enough to figure out everything we might want to know, after all?"

Why wouldn't it? We're doing pretty well so far - anything you care to name has a (to me) satisfactory explanation to well better than general level - and as the computers get smarter your objection won't scale.

'Leaving aside "free will" for a moment, the boundless expressions of human creativity persuades me that we are not automotons.'

Chaos subjected to selection criteria will produce art. Anyway, do you have any framework to explain what a non-deterministic creativity is and how to get around Descartes?

use de horse.

(i kill myself sometimes.)

the tricky bit is the selection criteria. if the selection criteria is the artist's exercise of his muse, then you're just renaming the problem.

Tens of billions of people have died and still no news from the afterlife.

(15sec + 1/2 bottle wine calculation)

art = natural variations in individual human thought process (aka free will) MOD current societal norms.

and societal norms are the sum of individual human thought processes feeding back on themselves over time.

Well, it looks like a few here can no longer get angry at Bush for invading Iraq. He had no choice in the matter.

cleek: well, ok, but i still like spending time with the Impressionists at the Met when I visit NY.

"We would need some way of understanding how to think about Cho as a human being, how to reach out and offer comfort to those who are grieving, how to react in the face of violent mental illness, and how to understand the fact that things like this can happen."

Something D'Souza seems incapable of doing. He'd rather polemicize.

So even if you refuse a supernatural being, is it too hard to conceptualize a higher being, as I imagine we appear to dogs? Assuming that there is a scientific explanation to all life, why is it not possible that it was caused by a logically existing higher being that designed humanity, in the same way that I think we can now create the polio virus in a lab from parts (though not yet from scratch)?

I don't claim to be a dog's god, but I do think I am a superior being (well maybe not me, but humans in general).

well, ok, but i still like spending time with the Impressionists at the Met when I visit NY.

no offense (really), but that response feels a lot like D'Souza's.

just because i think there's a rational explanation for what people do, it doesn't mean i think we'll ever be able to understand it, or duplicate it. and more importantly, i don't think that believing it's, at some level, clockwork takes away from enjoying the things people do, create or enjoy. just as atheists find meaning in a life that isn't guided by a divine hand, it's possible for determinists to enjoy the creations that other people make - for quite the same reasons, i suspect. people create what people like, in general, and the variation keeps things interesting because people crave variety. sure, it's all a closed, natural, deterministic system, but that doesn't mean it's not fun or interesting. we've evolved to enjoy life, to make art, to like rainbows, puppies and sodeepop. nobody digs through all the layers of meaning and intent (at least nobody anyone wants to spend time with) - the mystery of not knowing is, in itself, interesting.

we can look at a painting and see things the artist didn't intend. the artist probably intended things we don't see. because we're imperfect and can't know everything, determinism will never take away the fun parts of being alive. we'll never be able to predict in real-time what another person will do - and even if we could do it with computer assistance, we won't want to.

IMO.

"we'll never be able to predict in real-time what another person will do - and even if we could do it with computer assistance, we won't want to."

Well, Kurzweil and those transhumanist types think we (or some of us) will be transcending our humanity in a generation or so. Predicting what some mere person will do might be some transhuman child's homework assignment.

Preference between the two is just (ahem) a matter of choice?

The "(ahem)" here seems to be perjorative, as if making a preference between the two a matter of choice somehow trivializes the question.

Yes, preference between the two is a matter of choice. No, that is no trivial matter.

The choice involves everything we bring to the table as thinking, feeling, living beings.

In matters such as those under discussion, there is no objective perspective to be had. Human consciousness can't step outside of itself and evaluate, from the outside, the nature of human consciousness.

The choice -- the commitment to one fundamental stance or another -- is, as far as I can tell, the essential act that colors and conditions the rest of any person's thinking about questions of free will, spiritual vs materialistic models of reality, or whether God or something like God exists or not.

There are a lot of things that motivate and form the basis for that choice, but "objective truth" is, I think, not really one of them. The criteria for evaluating what is "objective" and "true" is tangled up in the choice itself.

Now it's probably time for me to go to bed.

Thanks -

Well, Kurzweil and those transhumanist types think we (or some of us) will be transcending our humanity in a generation or so.

IIRC, Kurzweil kind of stepped back from the transhumanist agenda after he had kids.

Thanks -

Well, Kurzweil and those transhumanist types think we (or some of us) will be transcending our humanity in a generation or so.

will there be flying cars, too ?! i hope so !

:)

Here's a question: how can you honestly argue that someone has "free will" if you have a huge club hanging over them in the afterlife?

I always felt "Heaven" and "Hell" inventions of people who wanted to be able to say "you'll be sorry later on, nyah nyah nyah!" but reserve some comfortable territory for themselves.

If we didn't have the concepts of "Heaven" and "Hell", what would the priests threaten us with?

I'm so sorry to come to this discussion late: it's been a hectic few days, without opportunity to reflect on this subject.

jrudkis wonders if, even if we don't believe there's a "God," if we might still accept the idea of a higher being; one that is to us as we are dogs. My answer is: though attractive on an intuitive basis, there is no logic behind the idea.

Are these higher beings embodied? Then why have we never seen them? If gods or aliens came to Earth, they left no relics nor reliable reports - all reports of alien encounters can be explained neurologically; there is no physical evidence.

If they're not embodied, then how can they exist? There is no provision in physics for a disembodied intellect, if only because thought needs a carrier medium to hold the signal.

The notion that space or electromagnetic fields or cosmic radiation could be such a medium are attractive at first, but there would still be some sign that those media are used for thinking; some patterned activity. If one says, yes, but a higher being's thoughts might take so long or be so vast that we can't perceive them - then that goes to the next question: Why would such beings have any interest in a species whose entire history is little more than the wink of their universal eyes? How could they interact with us - as well ask us to interact meaningfully with subatomic particles!

If such beings exist, then they are irrelevant to us, as we must be to them.

The same logic forces me to conclude there is no afterlife. Believe me, I wish there were. But it comes down to carrier waves again: without a physical form to hold the matter that enables electrical signals to fly back and forth, there's nothing to keep a consciousness together. Even if some spark - some randomized, incoherent energy bits - remain, there's no place for them to go and nothing for them to do... except dissipate into the background hum of the universe. Those bits would hold no memory, no sense of self. They would not be "us'; just static.

"The "(ahem)" here seems to be perjorative, as if making a preference between the two a matter of choice somehow trivializes the question."

Not perjorative, it was meant more of a joke on the whole question from either side--phrasing it assumes away the answer one way or another.

CaseyL,

How long would you have to think to experience eternity, if your thoughts were at the speed of light?

Yikes: apparently I was the only person who was unable to access this or any other Typepad blog all evening. And what happens? Free will. Just my luck.

For what it's worth, the majority position among philosophers is that freedom is compatible with naturalism, whether deterministic or not (so long as the indeterminacy is not massive. Or, as one philosopher put it: Are we or are we not as deterministic as, say, alarm clocks?)

I think it's too late to try to explain why. Plus, last time I tried, I wrote a book ;(

if i understand my SciAm version of physics, the faster you go the slower time moves, so if you were moving at the speed of light eternity would last an instant.

and even if that's wrong, i like the idea.

cleek: i graduated from Dartmouth two years behind D'nesh and found him to be a terrible human -- is there anyone else you can analogize me to?

more to the point, i was talking about my personal experience. the fact that i'm an atheist should not in any way change the meaning of the sentence "I enjoy being in the presence of Monet paintings". i think D'nesh was a long way from that.

as to why I like Monet, I'm open to suggestions.

hil, cite please?

But this is not about moving at the speed of light, but thinking. What would you experience, if you were able to divorce from the physical world for an instant and allow your mind to crank through whatever jumble of thoughts you might have about heaven or hell.

I think about those times when a stressful situation seems to slow time down and give me more "time" to experience it, and wonder if that is what happens at death, just to a greater extent.

Majority opinion among philosophers?

I have mixed feelings about Dawkins' claims re atheism. While I share his atheism and agree that much religious feeling has led to horrific events, I am uncomfortable with the ferocity of his condemnations of believers. People need spirituality in the same way that they need art or companionship or freedom.

Yeah, I'm sort of perturbed by the ferocity of the condemnations of atheists by believers; gratuitously and in no context. Like, say, the ones referenced above.

But that's just me. I'm like Mick Jones that way, when I get aggression, I give it two times back.

I think this might be the Bizarro World recommended diary to end all...Bizarro World recommended diaries.

"as to why I like Monet, I'm open to suggestions."

Combination of more or less innate human perceptional tendencies, associations with nature and other visual experiences, and training (e.g., I taught myself how to like Monet one summer in grad school with a book of nice reproductions and clear descriptions of his technique and color strategies).

i graduated from Dartmouth two years behind D'nesh and found him to be a terrible human -- is there anyone else you can analogize me to?

honestly, i was really trying not to make it personal. i'm not comparing you to anyone - that would be a bit presumptuous of me, since i don't know you from Adam. and, yes, he's a dick.

it was late, maybe i should've thought it through a little better. apologizes.

I think this might be the Bizarro World recommended diary to end all...Bizarro World recommended diaries.

i love it. after yet another "The Left Hates America" screed, a leftie in comments proclaims his love of America. and then Moe threatens him with banning. what a lunatic!

the fact that i'm an atheist should not in any way change the meaning of the sentence "I enjoy being in the presence of Monet paintings".

ah, crap. i read your comment last night as if you were saying "if it's all just molecules-on-molecules, how can i enjoy paintings?" ... which is a lot like what D'Souza said, but not what you were saying at all. my bad.

I think this might be the Bizarro World recommended diary to end all...Bizarro World recommended diaries.

I really wish they would stop all the negativity and focus on the good news like the freshly painted schools in Richmond and Roanoke.

How long would you have to think to experience eternity, if your thoughts were at the speed of light?

Think reference frames. Eternity can be highly subjective, if you think of reference frames as being subjects.

Speaking of lightspeed, my wife thought that a lot of this time-dilation stuff was just theory. I then explained to her that GPS wouldn't work very well at all if their clocks weren't corrected for relatavistic effects, and that even in LEO, clocks pace time measureably slower than on the Earth's surface. At these speeds relatavistic effects are tiny, but they're cumulative.

I didn't know Kurzweil stepped back from transhumanism--his latest book (which I didn't read) just came out a year or two ago.

I know a transhumanist. (Not a transhuman, not yet anyway.) I don't know him well, but as I understand it he's making his plans for godhood. Gonna be a cryosicle if computer technology hasn't advanced enough to download his personality before death.

The incentive structure for self-sacrificial heroism with this belief system seems somewhat discouraging. You rush into a burning building and don't survive and you don't give up just a few decades, but whatever length of time a transhuman would be around. (Until the heat death of the universe, or whatever is going to happen). That's gotta suck.

Hilzoy, is Dennett's "Elbow Room" a representative example of how determinists reconcile free will with determinism?

DJ: yes, one variant.

I keep trying to give short explanations, rather than even shorter yes or no answers, but when I try writing them, they grow.

My basic take on the debate is: once upon a time, before the success of modern science, people assumed that our choices couldn't be explained as the result of antecedent causes. If this assumption were true, then either something you do is caused by something other than you, e.g. when I push you and you fall, or you chose to do it. In the latter case you act freely (absent ignorance, etc.)

Now we have to recognize the possibility that our choices themselves -- even the most thoughtful and deliberative ones, when we seem not to be pushed about by anything -- are caused by antecedent events. Most of these are in our brains etc., but if you trace their causes back far enough, you get either to indeterministic events or to stuff outside us.

This undoes the dichotomy I cited earlier: either something you do is caused by something other than you, e.g. when I push you and you fall, or you chose to do it. Now, apparently, it can be true both that you chose to do something yourself and that that choice was (ultimately) caused by something outside you.

At this point, we can't have our old conception of freedom: we are free when we decide what to do, rather than being caused to do it by stuff outside us. We have to decide which part matters more: the "we choose" part, or the "without being caused" part. (I think of this as being like the way the Civil War forced a redefinition of the American republic: what matters more, the right of states to withdraw from the original compact, or the freedom of all Americans? As a matter of interpretation, one could go either way.)

For various reasons, a lot of us pick the "we chose" part (with some qualifications to exclude e.g. being plainly manipulated), rather than the "without being caused" part.

D'Souza replies:

    My point was that atheism has nothing to offer in the face of tragedy except C'est la vie. Deal with it. Get over it. This is why the ceremonies were suffused with religious rhetoric. Only the language of religion seems appropriate to the magnitude of tragedy. Only God seems to have the power to heal hearts in such circumstances. If someone started to read from Dawkins on why there is no good and no evil in the universe, people would start vomiting or leaving.

the dumb is strong with this one.

the dumb is strong with this one.

There can be only dumb.

Slartibartfast,

I am thinking of the brain as a computer, and the time reference we would have would be number of calculations executed (so if at the biological rate of calculations we are at the speed of a train, but at death it increases to light even for a split second) you would increase the amount of experienced calculations by a comparative infinite amount, your conscience would "feel" those calculations based on its time relative understanding. And since it would rely on your expectations in the graymatter software, no physical world input impede the sensation.

Remember how video games used to use the clock speed of the processor to regulate its interaction, and when you upgraded to a new processor, the game became unplayable because it went too fast? like that, but without the physical world interaction to impede.

"Ismail X" was his nickname for Little Cho. It's an anagram of "Salami IX." As in 11" salami.

Hoyt,

IX is 9 in Roman numerals. Also, where does the second "a" come from? Carry on.

Also, where does the second "a" come from?

some reports had it spelled "Ismail Ax". hence Salami XI.

I, too, was unable to access TypePad last night.

Sebastian Holsclaw: I think a hard naturalistic world view would be: What seems like free will is actually the fact that every human being is dictated to by his nature and his environment such that they have absolutely no control other than what all the inputs say the output must be.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but your argument seems to be premised on the idea that will flows from some essence of a person that is somehow separable from his nature. But that strikes me as question-begging. What distinguishes the nature of a thing from its essence?

Under such a view it is nonsense to say "He chose to sacrifice himself so his students could escape." Rather "A complex interaction between his genes and his environmental experiences over the course of his life conditioned him in such a way that he was compelled to use his body to block the door in response to the idea of a shooter coming in the door."

Why would it be nonsense? Say you have incredibly strong moral convictions about a matter. So strong that, when faced with a given set of perceptions, only one option is acceptable to you (in this case, saving the students). Do your convictions make you incapable of choice, or are they a fundamental component of that choice? I'd argue the latter, but your reasoning above suggests the former. Perhaps false perceptions can rob you of your ability to choose (for instance, if you are misled or somehow disoriented), but to suggest that the very fact of your psychological makeup necessarily robs you of the ability to make decisions seems silly to me.

My dyslexia gave him an extra two inches. If only it would do the same for me.

Since I didn’t initiate the tangent on free will versus determinism, I won’t bother to apologize for being off topic relative to the original post. Anyway…

I don’t consider myself to be an atheist or a firm believer in (hard) determinism. I simply suspect that I’m missing something. I have a hard time seeing how, under the assumption that there are physical laws governing the universe, the set of initial conditions at, say, the Big Bang would not determine the sequence of events to follow for eternity (or until the end of the universe – whatever that means). And I hesitate to use a term like “immutable physical laws” because there may be subordinate laws that will change under certain circumstance according to some higher physical law(s). I suppose it would be the system of physical laws that could be said to be immutable, if not each and every law itself.

If you have some number of particles with their respective locations and velocities under the influence of some number of forces interacting with one another, the conditions of any given moment in time will have arisen, according the physical laws of the universe, from those of a previous moment in time, and will, in turn, similarly determine the conditions of a subsequent moment in time. I don’t see what would break this relational chain of events, short of divine intervention, which I am assuming not to be a possibility for the purposes of this discussion. Once you throw god or some similar concept into the mix, all bets are off, unless that god is non-interfering, but I assume there are atheists who believe in the physical laws of the universe, but not in hard determinism.

In the deterministic case, free will is an illusion arising from self-awareness and the inability of the self-aware to predict the conditions of future moments based on the conditions of the present or past, perhaps even the inability to fully evaluate the conditions any given moment. To borrow a phrase from the Intelligent Design crowd (who probably borrowed it from computer scientists or something) it’s a matter of irreducible complexity, since we don't have the enormous, super-multivariate, all-encompasing differential equation to describe the universe.

I hate, perhaps, to contradict Einstein, but I think he was quoted as having said something like “God doesn’t play dice with the universe” in support of the deterministic view. I would say that the deterministic view with a non-intervening god would be the ultimate in universal dice play. While we view the outcomes of dice rolls as being random, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t deterministic. We just can’t predict the outcomes, and no one outcome is favored over another. But the dice had some initial trajectory and rotational energy, interacted with other bodies and landed on one side or another accordingly.

I can’t express how, exactly, this gets to my typing this right now as being an inevitable consequence of the Big Bang, but I can’t say why that wouldn’t be the case under the assumptions previously stated.

I can’t express how, exactly, this gets to my typing this right now as being an inevitable consequence of the Big Bang

it's exactly as you said: "the dice had some initial trajectory and rotational energy, interacted with other bodies and landed on one side or another accordingly". but it's not a simple craps or Yahtzee roll; in the case of you writing on this blog, the universe rolled am uncountably-large number of incredibly-many-sided dice. it's not random, but it's so far from being predictable that it might as well be magic.

I think this might be the Bizarro World recommended diary to end all...Bizarro World recommended diaries.

Ho Chi Minh!! I knew he must be behind it all!!

Dear Uncle Ho must be comforted to know he lives on in the memories of our pals at RS.

Thanks -

I have a hard time seeing how, under the assumption that there are physical laws governing the universe, the set of initial conditions at, say, the Big Bang would not determine the sequence of events to follow for eternity (or until the end of the universe – whatever that means).

I think there's an unappreciated division between deterministic and knowable or even predictable. It's possible, I suppose, that every last event, microscopic or macroscopic, has been determined the moment the universe came into being. Or even before that. I don't believe that, but I don't know that anyone has proven otherwise. Randomness may be deterministic randomness, in the sense that a Monte Carlo simulation can reproduce the same random sequence exactly if needed, but to me it's indistinguishable from capricious randomness. If you don't have the seed and the algorithm for generating a random sequence, you're lost. It's worse than that, though: there's so MANY random variables that you couldn't possibly keep track of all of them at once. The sampling interval for nature's random sequences is hopelessly small.

So, I'm thinking that even if the universe is deterministic, it's got random sequences embedded in it that can't possibly be predicted, and so it is for any human purposes indistinguishable from a nondeterministic universe.

I believe it was lack of appreciation of such randomness that led some earlier scientists to either despair or think they had the key to it all. Newton, if left with a few more decades of life, may have decided that aero/hydrodynamics wasn't quite so straightforward after all. Randomness and complexity/nonlinearity: either one by itself can discourage one who thinks he can do long-range predictions.

I'm sure there's been loads of stuff written on this topic, but I haven't read any of it, and I don't even know what quadrant of thinking it might belong to.

"It's possible, I suppose, that every last event, microscopic or macroscopic, has been determined the moment the universe came into being."

How d'ya reconcile that with Heisenberg? Or is that just another way of saying what you're saying?

I either a) very carefully avoided Heisenberg, or b) sloppily failed to address the uncertainty principle. I'm not saying which.

Or, possibly, I was just rambling on about whether the universe is actually random or only apparently random. The fact that an observer was about to make a precise measurement of velocity on a particle could, after all, have been cast in stone (so to speak; probably "determined by the seed of the Great Random Number Generator In The Sky" might be more consistent) billions of years ago.

And no, I'm not entirely serious about that idea. I have a hard time imagining that anyone who makes a lifetime of studying quantum mechanics could think that the universe is deterministic; I've just dabbled in it a wee bit (to the extent required to understand what makes a laser work, almost) and I definitely don't believe in a deterministic universe.

My limited understanding of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle is that there is a constant, the value of which I don't recall (in SI units), that is the product of the errors in measurement of the velocity (momentum?) of a particle and the position of that particle. I thought it was a matter of an observational limitation, due to the effect of the observation on the event being observed. I can see how this would relate to the human understanding of the workings of the universe and making predictions thereof, but I don't see how it relates to the universe being deterministic or non-deterministic. I think that's what Slartibartfast was getting at when he wrote

The fact that an observer was about to make a precise measurement of velocity on a particle could, after all, have been cast in stone (so to speak; probably "determined by the seed of the Great Random Number Generator In The Sky" might be more consistent) billions of years ago.

or sort of, maybe?

Isn't there a point where meta information impacts the sequence of the big bang in ways not foreseable through any type of physics? So, it may be foreordained on which side of the cube a die lands, but the number showing on that side of the cube is not, or there is an error in those playing the game in not knowing the rules, and the impact of winning or losing therefore throws new ripples through the sequence.

The question of whether quantum events with some uncertainty are really undetermined, or only appear to be undetermined with some deeper deterministic level, is (a part of) the question of "hidden variables".

The interesting thing is that there are theorems stating that if there are hidden variables, then in order for them to produce results fully consistent with quantum mechanics, they have to have very, very strange properties, perhaps stranger than those of quantum mechanics itself.

For instance, the hidden variables have to be "contextual": in some cases, the value the hidden variables determine for one observable quantity has to depend on your choice of measurement of other observable quantities, even if there is no quantum-mechanical uncertainty principle relating those quantities! Also, that contextuality has to work instantaneously across arbitrary distances, faster than light. Experiments have been done that seem to show that there is no wriggling out of this; the properties of QM that require hidden variables to be this weird seem to be borne out in nature.

So most quantum physicists don't go for hidden variables. However, some of them do go for some variant of the Everett interpretation, wherein quantum mechanics is totally deterministic but the whole world is in a superposition of vastly different states; all the results of a measurement happen at once. For practical purposes, this would be the same thing as a nondeterministic universe.

Some people have tried to use quantum indeterminacy as a way of salvaging a fundamental physical role for free will, or for the hand of God as a guiding force in nature. But the requirement of randomness in QM is fairly pitiless; if the outcomes are biased with any tendency toward a particular result, that could be expressed as a change in the average measured value of some observable operator, and would therefore be incompatible with quantum mechanics. A pure die roll with no biases whatsoever doesn't strike me as the essence of human free will or of the mind of an intelligent God. To my mind, any salvageable notion of free will really has to be defined in compatibilist terms, even if there is quantum indeterminism.

Personally, I am OK with thinking of my free will, my feelings, the meaning of my life, etc. as properties of a physical decision-making process.

Speaking of which, the do-it-yourself quantum eraser.

"The interesting thing is that there are theorems stating that if there are hidden variables"

There are also efforts to get around these theorems by people thinking about much much smaller scales than we have any experience with.

Also, amusingly, much much larger scales.

Hilzoy, no fair, you're reading D'Souza and responding with rational arguments! How can he possibly compete? ;-)

As to Derbyshire, he's still the most offensive of the lot in my book. I wasted some time on some other blog with a troll who was trying to defend him. I'm glad to see some of Derbyshire's fellow conservatives criticize him, but some of the chatter out there (Mark Steyn, for another) is quite troubling.

The Dawkins passage that D'Souza was referring to is actually one of Dawkins most famous quotations:


In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.

Needless to say, this is not a particularly comforting passage.I doubt if you want to quote this to the survivors. Even if you dont buy everything D'souza says, he has a point as regards the view expressed in this quote

Also, amusingly, much much larger scales.

Which, according to some talks I've been to, is exactly the same thing.

stonetools,
There are lots of things that might not be particularly comforting to the survivors, but given that Dawkins was not writing something in the aftermath of the VT shootings, it seems a little off to try and claim that he was. Which is precisely why D'Souza is a 5th rate hack.

It seems worth noting that Dawkins' conclusion about the absence of innate meaning in the universe isn't the last word in ethics.

Say it's entirely true, and that we can be sure of it. The question then is, what next?

We might conclude, like a robber baron or a serial killer, that others are ours to do with as we please.

We might conclude, like Camus, that if we want meaning, community, and other virtues, we'll have to make them, and it's a big job, so let's get to work on it.

If I had to choose between funeral orations from D'Souza or Camus, I will bet that I'd find Camus more encouraging and comforting.

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