6.14.2005

Paradox of Determinism?

Can anyone help me here? I can’t tell if this is a legitimate paradox, or even a sound line of reasoning. (Forgive me if the writing isn’t clear—I’m working on clarifying my thoughts and finding a better way to articulate them, but the urge to share and get feedback has taken precedence). Here’s what I’m thinking:

I believe in the laws of physics. I don’t have a sophisticated understanding of them, but from what I do understand, they imply that all activity in the universe is governed by laws. This leads me to endorse the theory of mechanistic determinism. And since I have yet to hear a plausible argument detailing the sense in which humans are exempt from those laws, I am, in turn, led to (reluctantly) deny free will.

But if we aren’t free, then wouldn’t that cast suspicion on the truth of the very laws that imply determinism? For we are the creators of science, and if we aren’t free, then that means that science wasn’t created freely and isn’t practiced freely. The behavior of scientific practice and development would be the result of laws with no particular (or at least identifiable) aim, not humans seeking truth. And while we may think it is our pursuit of truth that drives science, under the theory of determinism (as I understand it), this would merely be our perception, not the true cause of our actions. But to remove the motivation for truth from science seems to significantly lessen its credibility. For why should we consider the claims of science to be true if there is no evidence that truth is their intended purpose?

So here is my circular train of thought: My belief in science leads me to determinism, which then leaves me with no good reason to believe in science (or any inquiry for that matter).

I’m probably way oversimplifying the issue, partially because of misunderstanding, but also because I’m trying to cram it into one post. And the more I think about it, I don’t think that this problem is a proper paradox, at least in the logical sense. For it doesn’t seem to be the case that if determinism is true, then it’s also false; only that if it’s true, then there is no reason to think it’s true. But aside from what to call it, does it sound like a legitimate dilemma at all? I’m sure I’m missing something here. Any help?

5 comments:

Joe said...

I guess I don't see how the fact that science is itself the result of determinism effects the validity of science. Why does inquiry have to be "free" to be true?

Also, I think that consciousness throws a wrench in the works. Even if consciousness arises out of mechanistic causes, once it's there, it seems to me that "motivations" are as causative of behavior as anything else. The existence of these "final" causes (i.e., where an action is pulled toward a goal rather than pushed) doesn't get you out of determinism, because the events are stilled caused, in this case by motivations. I guess my point is that the desire for truth is a legitimate cause of scientific inquiry.

Perhaps this is neither here nor there, but I believe that quantum physics has a certain degree of randomness in it. That is, the motion of subatomic particles is completely unpredictable. At that level, at least, there don't seem to be any relevant "laws" as we understand them. I've heard a lot of semi-mystic mumbo jumbo made of this fact, but I'm not sure if it has any relevance in the freedom/determinism debate. Is freedom just randomness? Also, I've heard it said that our particular laws of nature are arbitrary; if the universe had been slightly different during the big bang, the laws might be completely different. I just think that's weird (and I might be wrong about it...but I do think I heard it somewhere).

Mark said...

I think I can see a sense in which inquiry need not be “free” to be valid. For example, 1 + 1 = 2 seems to be valid despite the motivation that led to its discovery. Even if it is entirely the result of deterministic laws of nature, it still seems valid. But in a deterministic universe, our criteria for affirming validity is also determined, as well as the judgments that approved that criteria, and so on ad infinitum. So there seems to be a tension in claiming that determinism and validity are compatible because the latter will always be reduced to the former. Hence determinism takes away our ability to decide what constitutes validity. This is why I think inquiry must be free to be true. Without freedom, any notion of truth seems undermined.

As for the emergence of consciousness, I would consider it more an effect of the laws of nature than a new source of causality. My only reason being that there is stronger evidence for the laws of nature than there is for the claim that consciousness can transcend them (unless we go the pre-established harmony route). But, then again, perhaps the physical world and the world of consciousness are sufficiently different such that they can’t be examined with the same tools, thereby making it unfair to judge what constitutes evidence by only one standard. I don’t know. Anyhow, in what sense do you see consciousness as both determined and causative?

I hear what you’re saying with regard to the uncertainty of the behavior of sub-atomic particles. I don’t understand it either, at least not well enough to draw any conclusions from it. But there is something about it that feels like an opening for affirming freedom, or at least for refuting full-blown determinism.

Andrew said...

I think Joe is onto something in bringing up quantum physics. The predictable (deterministic) Newtonian “Laws” of physics that govern the observable only seem to apply to relatively large quantities of matter and the physics community now considers them little more than generalizations of an infinitely complex and largely unpredictable universe. For example we can easily predict where a planet is going to be 45 days from now, but it is impossible to predict the spin of an individual photon. (http://www.networkmagazine.com/shared/printableArticle.jhtml?articleID=17602011)
(http://www.csmonitor.com/2001/1004/p15s1-stss.html)
Knowing this, I don’t understand how a deterministic universe could exist with even the slightest degree of chaos.

Andrew said...

The Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics of 1927 answered some of the philosophical dilemmas posed by our the increased understanding quantum mechanics.
(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copenhagen_interpretation)
The Copenhagen interpretation answers these questions as follows:
1. The probability statements made by quantum mechanics are irreducible in the sense that they don't exclusively reflect our limited knowledge of some hidden variables. In classical physics, probabilities were used to describe the outcome of rolling a die, even though the process was thought to be deterministic. Probabilities were used to substitute for complete knowledge. By contrast, the Copenhagen interpretation holds that in quantum mechanics, measurement outcomes are fundamentally indeterministic.
2. Physics is the science of outcomes of measurement processes. Speculation beyond that cannot be justified. The Copenhagen interpretation rejects questions like "where was the particle before I measured its position" as meaningless.
3. The act of measurement causes an instantaneous "collapse of the wave function". This means that the measurement process randomly picks out exactly one of the many possibilities allowed for by the state's wave function, and the wave function instantaneously changes to reflect that pick.

Joe said...

Man, physics is weird.

I'm not so sure that the quantum indeterminancy issue does much for HUMAN freedom. Nature itself has a degree of randomness, so I guess you could call that freedom. But, when we talk about human freedom, aren't we talking about the capacity for human choice, for humans consciousness to change the future. Does the randomness of particle movement really make humans more capable of creating alternative futures through their choices? (incidentally, my approach to freedom is much like my approach to God. I believe in it, even though it's irrational, basically because I want to).
I guess I see consciousness as determined and causative in that it seems to have a physical base (the brain), and therefore it's functions, from a physical perspective, can be described using physical laws. But it can also be described from the perspective of mind. For instance, when I want a peanut butter sandwich, you could say that such and such a physical reaction has/is taking place. Or, you could say that I envision a peanut butter sandwhich and imagine how yummy it would be. I guess my point is that I have projected in my imagination an idea of a peanut butter sandwich, and that my motivation to strive for one is real. It's undeniable that I am experiencing it.
As I said, I don't think this necessarily avoids determinism, because the motivations themselves have causes, etc, etc. But it does seem to me a different kind of cause (one where action is pulled into the future by motivation rather than pushed by physical law). I see your point, though, that the actions of the mind, and motivations themselves, have been pushed into existence from physical causes. I guess I'm still in the Berkeley camp that mind and matter are essentially and irreconcilably different things, even though they're obviously connected.
Not much use for your original question, I fear. Good luck with figuring it out.