Monday, 23 September 2019

The Impossibility of Determinism

Posted by Thomas Scarborough

Indeed, free will and determinism. It is a classic problem of metaphysics. No matter what we may think about it, we know that we have a problem. We know that things are physically determined. I line up dominos in a row, and topple the first of them with my finger. It is certain that the whole row of dominos will fall.

Are people then subject to the same kind of determinism? Are we just so many powerless humanoid shapes waiting to be knocked down by circumstances? Or perhaps, to what extent are we subject to such determinism? Is it possible for us to escape our own inner person? Our own history? Our own future? Are we even free to choose our own thoughts—much less our actions? Are we even free to believe? Each of these questions would seem to present us with a range of mightily confusing answers.

I suggest that it may be helpful to try to view the question from a broader perspective—the particular one that comes from consideration of the phenomenon of cause and effect. If I am controlled by indomitable causes, then I am not free. Yet if I am (freely) the cause of my own thoughts and actions, then I am free. Which then is it? Once we understand the dynamics of cause and effect, we should be in a better position to understand free will and determinism.

What is cause and effect?

In our everyday descriptions of our world, we say that, to paraphrase Simon Blackburn, causation is the relation between two events. It holds when, given that one event occurs, ‘it produces, or brings forth, or necessitates the second’. The burrowing aardvark caused the dam to burst; the lightning strike caused the thatch to burn; the medicine caused the patient to rally, and so on. Yet we notice in this something that is immediately problematic—which is that in order to say that there is causality, we need to have carefully defined events before and after.

But such definition is a problem. The philosopher-statesman Francis Bacon wrote of the ‘evil’ we find in defining natural and material things. ‘The definitions themselves consist of words, and those words beget others.’ Aristotle wrote that words consist of features (say, the features of a house), and those features must stand in a certain relation to one another (rubble, say, is not a house). Therefore, not only do we have words within words, but features and relations, too.

Where does it all end? It all ends nowhere. It is an endless regress. Bacon’s ‘evil’ means that our definitions dissipate into the universe. It seems much like having money in a bank, which has its money in another bank, which has its money in another bank, and so on. It is not hard to see that one will never find the money. Full definitions ultimately reach into the void.

If we want to be consistent about it, there are no events. In order to obtain events, we need to set artificial limits to our words—and artificial limits to reality itself, by excluding unwanted influences on our various constructions. But that is not the way the world really is in its totality. More than this, these unwanted influences always seem to enter the picture again somewhere along the line. This is a big part of the problem in our world today.

Of course, cause and effect quite simply work: he lit the fire; I broke the urn; they split the atom. This is good as far as it goes—yet again, such explanations work because we define before and after—and that very definition strips away a lot of what is really going on.

Where does this leave us? It leaves us without a reason to believe in cause and effect—even if we are naturally disposed to thinking that way. There is no rational framework to support it.

Someone might object. Even if we have no befores and afters, we still have a reality which is bound by the laws of the universe. There is therefore some kind of something which is not free. Yet every scientific law is about events before and after. Whatever is out there, it has nothing in common—that we can know of anyway—with such a scheme.

This may be a new way of putting it, but it is not a new idea. Albert Einstein, as an example, said that determinism is a feature of theories, rather than any aspect of the world directly. While, at the end of this post, we cannot prove free will, we can state that notions of determinism are out of the question, in the world as we know it. The world is something else, which we have not yet understood.


Keith said...

Thanks, Thomas, for bringing up this important topic. Always worth revisiting.

I see the notion of free will as bumping against genetics and epigenetics, which powerfully predispose a person to particular thoughts, decisions, and actions. Psychological moulding — family, schooling, culture, history, affiliations, governance, religion, social environment, and more — adds a further defining and layering, confounding the calculation.

All these, and other, factors arguably lead to cognitive and emotional biases and, rallying the brain’s complicit neuroplasticity to their cause, determine at least aspects of one’s choices: thoughts, decisions, and actions.

So, if, as you suggest, ‘we can state that notions of determinism are out of the question’ — and if, as I suggest, ‘we can state that notions of free will are out of the question’ — what are we left with? Is, perhaps, the long-historical model of thinking about free will and determinism in a strictly binary fashion critically flawed? Fatally flawed?

Might there be, instead, some kind of amalgam of the two: where aspects of thoughts, decisions, and actions may be free, others may be determined, and yet others may be compatibly, dualistically some of both? That is to say, where many thoughts, decisions, and actions are ‘influenced’ — heavily influenced, even to irresistibility — but are neither entirely free nor entirely determined?

Is it an error, therefore, for us to have insisted through history on largely painting ourselves into a mutually exclusive, either-or paradigm? A binary paradigm that still, to this day, sucks up much of the oxygen in our discussions about free will and determinism? Perhaps the notions of free will and determinism don’t necessarily cancel out one another, but rather cohabit explanations of human behaviour: our thoughts, decisions, and actions.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Thank you, Keith.

In terms of how we think, we cannot entertain determinism in any form, which is not even ‘factors’ such as those you advance. To say that there is causality, we need to have carefully defined events, before and after. Yet these are beyond our grasp, because all definitions reach into the void. At the same time, what is truly the case, we do not know.

One could argue, though, that because we cannot ‘come to land’ on anything by defining it, there is a disconnect between thought and reality. This could suggest free will.

There is something further in the universe which may weigh against determinism. We are at a loss to explain the complexity of our universe, where the rules should produce either complete chaos or complete regularity. That was a problem Stephen Hawking grappled with.

docmartincohen said...

Mmmm... I am reminded of Einstein's example of the lightening that strikes each end of a moving train at the same moment. However, depending on quite where the obserer is, grace to the movement of the train, the lightening actually strikes one end before the other...

I accept that (doesn't seem a big problem in everyday life) and also that 'before' and 'after' is relative. But time still seems to have its arrow, it just may be less clear which way it points. Thus events are linked, aren't they?

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Thank you Martin.

I am saying not only that before and after is relative, but relative or not, we could not ultimately speak of cause and effect at all. Of course, we do, but we need to do a hack job with our thinking to make it work.

Perhaps I can try an illustration. In front of my junior school class I put 999 identical marbles on a scale, and the 1 000th marble tips it. I ask my class, 'Which marble tipped the scale?' One says, 'This one.' Another says, 'That one.' They are adamant, too, that they can prove it -- and they do. Another says 'No, it was a whole bunch of marbles that tipped it' -- and proves it, too. The causes we find are much like the causes which these children find. We can identify them and prove them every one, but we are being fooled by reality.

Others have questioned the reality of causality: Kapila, Nietzsche Popper, Wittgenstein, and so on. Kitty Ferguson wrote, ‘Is nature's reality deeper than mathematics itself?’

Keith said...

You offer us, Thomas, the interesting image of a ‘whole row of dominoes [falling]’ in order to metaphorically represent determinism. As a thought experiment, you ask (rhetorically?) ‘to what extent are we subject to such determinism?’

In partial answer, I suggest one might think about the falling dominoes in relation to the human brain. That is, might the many billions of neurons firing in the brain, and the many trillions of synapses variously connecting them for the purpose of creating consciousness, correspond to the determinism illustrated by the falling dominoes? Admittedly a physicalist perspective on my part.

What do you think, then, of philosophers of the mind (with their millennia-long history of germane deep contemplation) teaming up with, say, neuroscientists on the challenge of sorting out the source of consciousness and of resolving the free will-determinism conundrum? Might the synergy of these two complementary fields prove a force multiplier in ultimately understanding these matters?

Every bit as interesting, of course, such resolution will only be the start of yet another mighty challenge: weighing the outcome’s impact on the multifarious ways in which society operates — now unavoidably by default — on the assumption of ‘accountability’, ‘responsibility’, and ‘consequences’.

docmartincohen said...

I think, Thomas and co, my point was really that causation requires two states : 'before' and 'after', yyet modern theories of the universe say such tings are illusory, or at least hopelessly subjective.

Your thought experiment with the marbles is fun but not persuasive. Clearly, if somone were to say the first marble tipped the scale, we could ask them to put the marble there - on is own - and wait to see it tipped again. Similarly, if someone said it was the 1000th marlbe, and that only, we could say, right we'll try again with just this '1000th marble' on its own. I wonder when you say that they re all right if you are allowing some sophistry with terms?!

docmartincohen said...

Re. Keith and neuroscience, what I find intriguing in modern research is the idea that we take decisions and THEN have the thought. Keith, I expect, knows all about this... perhaps he would like to say more...

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Thank you, Martin.

As with all analogies – and laws – it can only go so far. I’ll try Ohm’s law, as an example of what cause and effect are.

Ohm’s law is I = V / R. Suppose then that I have a circuit with 1000R, which I reduce to 1R. The effect should be, say, that a lamp now burns 1000 times brighter. But instead, I get smoke and sparks. Why? Because I was missing a law on heat. So I add the law P = dW / dt = IV and so on. But that law, too, omits other laws ... and so on and on.

By isolating cause A and effect B (by changing R), we exclude cause C and effect D (runaway heat), and this means a plume of smoke and sparks. But C and D contains further laws – and we could push our laws back further, to E and F, not to speak of G H I J K L ... which takes us into infinity. But in infinity, one can no longer speak of cause and effect.

One may also note: to the extent that one defines cause A, one excludes every other cause (C and E and so on). In fact, define any cause, and one excludes other causes. It seems like the game of hoop-la that one sees at fĂȘtes. One throws the hoop to encircle a toy. But our reality is what exists without the hoop.

Keith said...

Re: your request, Martin…

In a classic experiment in the early 1980s, a neuroscientist attached test subjects to a brain scanner (electroencephalograph) and asked them to flex their wrist at any moment while watching a dot rapidly rotating on an oscilloscope like the hand of a clock. He asked the subjects to note the position of the moving dot on the oscilloscope whenever he or she was aware of the ‘conscious’ decision to flex the wrist.

The neuroscientist found that the subjects reported that they made a decision to flex about 200 milliseconds (corrected for subject error) before actually flexing. However, their brain showed signs of what’s called the ‘readiness potential’—ramping up to flex, so to speak—about 550 milliseconds before flexing. That is, the subjects’ brains showed signs of ‘unconscious’ awareness to flex their wrists about 350 milliseconds before reporting ‘conscious’ awareness of having made a decision to flex.

As the neuroscientist concluded, based on these observations, ‘The initiation of the freely voluntary act [wrist flexion] appears to begin in the brain unconsciously, well before the person consciously knows he wants to act! Is there, then, any role for conscious will in the performance of a voluntary act?’

Similar tests have been conducted by other neuroscientists over the decades since then—using more sophisticated technology, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and direct recording of neuronal activity by implanted electrodes—remarkably producing comparable outcomes, presumably likewise bearing on free will. Further neuroscience research over the coming decades will undoubtedly lead to better understanding of consciousness and free will versus determinism.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

The research was conducted in 1983. Keith states that scientists have 'remarkably produced comparable outcomes'. This suggests the absence of a scientific controversy, which I think one may call it. For example The Cut, 3 February 2016: 'There’s now some evidence pointing in the other direction.'

May Keith himself serve as an example of our invention and imposition of causes, on whatever is really out there? My own argument, I would think, is not an empirical one, but logical. Can an empirical argument in principle trump a logical one? I'd be interested to hear some views on that.

Keith said...

Certainly, Thomas, philosophy will continue to greatly inform neuroscience, particularly in the arenas of consciousness and free will versus determinism, among others. A rigour that may take many decades to provide those true eureka insights that’ll give us the level of understanding we seek.

Among the most respected neuroscientists who routinely turn to philosophy to enlighten their thinking is Michael Gazzaniga. As you may know, he’s the director of the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and president of the Cognitive Neuroscience Institute.

Gazzaniga folds philosophy into all his discussions on the subject of consciousness and free will versus determinism, as anyone familiar with his books is aware. He’s one neuroscientist, among others, I respect for his intellectualism, broad mind, record of accomplishments, and unpretentious, reader-friendly sharing of his knowledge.

I happened, by chance, to stumble upon this site just this morning, which succinctly and nicely sums up at least some aspects of Gazzaniga’s method and positions relevant to the discussion here. It’s to the point, even if a prompt to turn elsewhere. My summarising would be duplicative and likely not do justice, so permit me to suggest that, if there’s interest, you and other readers go to this link, by way of an introductory snapshot …

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Thank you, Keith. My post is about the logical concepts which lie behind (a non-existent) causality. It is not about causality itself. While I could comment on the above, it would seem to take us in a direction which ignores the post.

Jeremy said...

I think we have free will within our wholistic cultural context (eg I am not free to speak Chinese or be an astronaut). To speak Chinese (transcend my limits to some extent) I have to to go to extraordinary lengths (learn to speak Chinese). Of course I am not free to fly, no matter what I believe, as I am bound by the scientific laws of the universe. So we ARE free, but within psychological (motivation and discipline) logical, cultural and real-world limitations.

Post a Comment