Do we fear determinism for the same reason we fear atheism?

A rambling post today. Fuzzy brained and foot loose!


  I was recently thinking about the concept of free will. It's an idea that has always bothered me, like a tickle at the back of the throat. I firmly believe in cause and effect. I firmly believe in the laws of physics and what they imply. So without an outside force, it makes sense that everything is controlled very directly by these laws. Including us. The logic behind it is fairly simple. I'm guessing it's the complexity of existence and the relative simplicity of our minds that makes choice such a plausible illusion. But an illusion is what it must be.


   This used to scare me. Deep down, I do not actively enjoy the idea of being so mundane and effectually predictable. Trapped. And in my mind, nothing special. Accepting that there's nothing beyond death was easy. Accepting the fact that I am a huge equation was much harder. After all, I chose what I valued and valued choice for itself.


  I spent a long time letting the idea sink past my emotions and into my more rational core. Eventually I decided that it didn't matter. How I make a choice, be it simply chemical predetermined or an active and separate process, matters much less than what my choice does. If my actions make the world better in some way my goal has been accomplished. And thinking back on this fear now, I can understand the desire to reject the idea of determinism altogether. Anything that removes our safety nets and makes us feel small tends to be met with the same resistance. Science gets the brunt of this reaction, but determinism falls right in with plenty of people.


   So with all this in mind, I wonder what other people think on the subject. Is it frightening to think of yourself as an eventuality? Has anyone come across anything contrary to the idea of determinism? Do we perhaps agree? Thoughts, please!

Views: 185

Tags: determinism, fate, free, will

Comment by Atheist Exile on June 19, 2011 at 3:12am

@Dr. del Toro,

I like the examples you cite.  When it comes to mental processes, I too have no clue "whether or not this is all predetermined".  But I can say that predetermination, as explained by hard determinists, is a little too "woo" for me.  Such a clockwork view of the universe is from the old-school, classical, scientific paradigm.  The modern scientific paradigm is ruled by quantum theory.  The observable (macro) universe might seem predictable but it emerges from a quantum universe that is anything but.

I'm certainly no scientist but it seems to me that if photons from the sun can exert pressure on a solar sail, then it also exerts pressure on cosmic debris.  If cosmic debris collects and self-organizes into larger and larger objects, including planets, I suppose that with enough data and a big enough computer, one could predict the progressive stages of development from debris to planet.  But what one can't predict is which photons (and other subatomic particles) will be affected by quantum fluctuations.  Since photons exert pressure on the cosmic debris that eventually collect into larger objects, we can't with ABSOLUTE accuracy predict how the pressure they exert on the debris will play out.  In other words, there's a certain amount of uncertainty or "drift" that leaks from the quantum realm into the classical realm.  In fact, quantum fluctuations are thought to be responsible for the "structure" of the universe (without them, the universe would allegedly be homogenous), so it seems there's no question that the quantum realm affects the classical realm.

Over scales of cosmic time and distance, there must be plenty of opportunity for the quantum properties of matter to affect causality at the macro level; making it less and less predetermined over greater and greater expanses of time and space.

But if one thinks that causality is absolutely, strictly, played out in clockwork fashion, then this classical view of things boils down to a fatally metaphysical model of the universe akin to religion.

Here's what I mean . . .

. . . If causality rules absolutely, then all you have to do is take cause and effect backward one step at a time until, ultimately, you arrive at the Prime Mover -- ostensibly either God or the Big Bang.  The problem here comes when you try to assert that the minutiae of reality 13 billion years later is predetermined FROM THE BEGINNING.  This smacks of God and design.  May the force be with you.  It's a fatalistic view of the universe based on an idea (cause and effect) so simple, it's binary.  That's just a little too simplistic and too woo for me.

Comment by Atheist Exile on June 19, 2011 at 4:16am
My previous post strayed into questionable territory.  I just thought of a (perhaps) less speculative analogy comparing life and evolution with the universe and causality.

As far as we know, life in the universe (even if it's relatively abundant) must be fairly dispersed.  The universe probably existed for billions of years before life ever came along.  If Earth is the only (or first) planet with life, then the universe was almost 10 billion years old before life made an appearance.  The point being that life is a very small part of the universe as a whole.

Yet it was only 150 years ago that Darwin gave us the theory of evolution by natural selection.  There was a perfectly logical explanation for life that didn't require design or God at all.  We just didn't know what it was until Darwin figured it out.

I think the questions surrounding determinism and causality are essentially an expression of a similar scenario in which an answer lies in waiting.  An answer that doesn't require design or God.  It could be that the macro universe is tweaked ever so slightly by its underlying quantum foundation, introducing enough uncertainty to obscure destiny.

I really don't know what to believe about predeterminism but I do know I don't like it for aesthetic and philosophical reasons . . . none of which make a difference to self-determinism, which emerges from causality whether or not it's absolute.
Comment by Chris Townsend on June 19, 2011 at 3:06pm

Remember, that usually when it comes to our current understanding of any scientific observation at a given time that is initially contributed to "randomness" (ie- sub-quantum fluctuations) is later learned to have not truly been random at all.  We eventually learn that the assignment of randomness to a process is limited to the infancy of the idea and is later determined that the seeming randomness in the initial observation was truly our lack of understanding of the process.  It seems random at first because there are, at the time, unmeasurable forces at work that give the facade of randomness, however, they are deeper forces that once quantified are just as predictable as any other and no longer causing the "random" effects we observe.  


Kind-of like coincidence, we can brush it off as random "coincidence" or we can search deeper until we do see the underlying causality that was in fact not random at all and thus proves that it truly was not random.  This makes me think of the "Butterfly Effect".  


Theological determinism (predetermination) seems to have validity and strength in the understanding of the holder of this perspective because one admits that although I do not personally understand every currently unknown force, the collective consciousness of the universe does understand even the most minute details of it's own existence and is therefor not restricted by time as we are...thus everything is already determined from beginning to end in it's own understanding.  (Not saying I personally ascribe to this view, I just understand this perspective and can see value in it as well as all of the others :)


Ultimately, my point is simply that we must be careful not to dismiss an apparent randomness as such since there is so much that we admittedly have yet to learn on the quantum level and beyond.   And that an acceptance of randomness = acceptance of ignorance if, in fact, true randomness does not exist...which it may, or may not.

Comment by Atheist Exile on June 20, 2011 at 1:10am
Hi Chris,

Would you cite your source for your assertion that the randomness in quantum physics was "later learned to have not truly been random at all" please?  That's news to me.

It doesn't matter to self-determinism if randomness does or does not exist.
Comment by Atheist Exile on June 20, 2011 at 3:01am

I've been Googling around for something to validate your assertion . . . no such luck.

I can recall reading prominent scientists (Feynman and Greene) stating that it appears that quantum randomness truly exists and is not just an artifact of quantum models.
Comment by Mo Trauen on June 20, 2011 at 10:30am

@Atheist Exile,


Chris, like most theists, is intellectually dishonest.

Comment by Arcus on June 20, 2011 at 11:51am

I wouldn't search physics alone for answers to the question of free will/determinism. Neuroscience will probably provide better answers since it's also within the realm of behavioral sciences.

My thought is that "life" can possibly be defined as the ability to consciously manipulate the laws of physics. We are physically constrained by them, but not our consciousness.

Comment by Chris Townsend on June 20, 2011 at 12:43pm

Hi Atheist Exile,


I will give a practical example that is not entirely based on quantum mechanics (it somewhat is), would be our understanding of electronegativity and quantum level particles that has led us to our current models vs historical man.  Let us consider lightening striking, for instance.  It is easy for me to imagine from the literature pre-20th century that most people believed that lightening striking is completely random.  We have since come to learn that it is not random but could be predicted if one could accurately measure the density of electronegative pouches within a cloud formed from the charge separation and then determine the path of least resistance from that point to the earth.  So, in this sense, it was once believed to be random but now we know that it is in fact not random.  If one takes a moment to consider this idea, I am sure you can think of several more similar examples :)  


We should also remember that in science, models are based upon mathematics and mathematics are universal, hence, we can often expect to see similar mathematical models applied across levels of reality.  One example of this that translates to any complex non-linear system is the Butterfly Effect which stems from Chaos Theory (the application of which crosses many disciplines).  Just take a few moments to read through the wiki articles that I linked and put that in context with my initial post and hopefully that should appease your interest and be proof enough.  


The only point I was making was that too often, an initial observation that appears to be random, eventually turns out to have been acted upon by unseen/unknown/unmeasurable forces at that time.  


I have listed some other theories that lie in various positions within a spectrum of relevancy to this idea of pseudo-randomness and IMO are very interesting:


String Theory but more precisely how it relates to Quantum Entanglement and the "Many-Worlds Interpretation" Postulate.


Our measuring of these systems (our reality): The EPR Paradox, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and the Schrodinger Equation (specifically, it's relation to Path Integral Formulation).


Also, a brief look at Quantum Chromodynamics might also provide some decent foundational understanding when considering the above ideas.


So, measurable vs unmeasurable, predictable vs unpredictable, random vs non-random vs pseudo-random.  We must always keep each of these perspectives in mind and consider every angle of reality :)


I hope that suffices...clear as mud???  haha


@ Mo - The ignorance that emanates (on so many levels) from that statement...well, it makes me embarrassed for you...dude, grow up...

Comment by Chris Townsend on June 20, 2011 at 1:02pm

@ Arcus - Neuroscience and physics both are great approaches, as well as cellular molecular biology and biochemistry to name a couple more :)  


The idea that consciousness is simply energy and that all energy is inherently linked, therefor the idea of a universal consciousness is not such a far-out notion.  


Check this: Consciousness, Physics, and the Holographic Paradigm


Also, and interesting study that is somewhat related: Global Consciousness Project


And considering the inter-relation and inter-dependancy between energy and matter, is it really so crazy to speculate that there might be something to altering the external world via internal/conscious effort?  Maybe...maybe not...something to think about though :)


Comment by Arcus on June 20, 2011 at 1:03pm

"we can often expect to see similar mathematical models applied across levels of reality.  One example of this that translates to any complex non-linear system is the Butterfly Effect which stems from Chaos Theory (the application of which crosses many disciplines)."

Mathematics only apply to the one reality we know. However many disciplines studies this one reality is therefore unrelated to mathematics being applicable across several realities. There's no evidence for other realities than ours, though it's not theoretically impossible as far as I know. Lastly, believing another reality interfering in ours is absolutely without evidence.


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