11 May 2015


I think I am going to be a fairly extreme determinist until someone convinces me otherwise.

This is not an informed position. My influences are:

  • “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang. (Including this in the list is about 37% joke, but go ahead and read it.)
  • the first couple chapters of SICM (all I’ve managed to read so far) and my vague and confused understanding of physics generally
  • the ancient Greek Stoics, whom I find alternately incomprehensible and convincing on this subject.

Why did the Stoics believe the universe was deterministic?

Paraphrasing the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “Chrysippus was convinced that the law of excluded middle applied even to contingent statements about particular future events.” The truth of a proposition never changes: if “jorendorff breaks his arm on 12 May 2015” turns out to be true tomorrow, then it is eternally true—it must be true already.

Huh! It hardly seems airtight, right? Inasmuch as the universe appears to be nondeterministic at quantum scale, there’s evidently a flaw in that logic somewhere.

However if you look past that, the Stoics start to look better and better. And let me start here by sniping at their rivals. The Epicureans, like the Stoics, believed that natural laws governed pretty much everything that happened. Even better, unlike the Stoics, they were atomists. But they added something extremely weird to this system. They claimed that atoms drifting downward under their own weight would occasionally “swerve” in a nondeterministic way. Lucretius:

For if they had not this characteristic of moving out of the direct line, they would all fall downwards like drops of rain through the depths of the void; no collision would take place, no one atom would strike upon another; and so nature would never have produced anything at all.

In the Epicureans’ defense, I think I’ve heard that the asymmetry of the universe and the very-large-scale variability in its density are interesting puzzles for present-day cosmologists too. Even the atomic swerve, ludicrous as it sounds, is somewhat vindicated in the atomic-scale nondeterminism of quantum mechanics.

Later Epicureans at least saw the swerve as giving rise to free will. Lucretius again:

You must admit therefore that the same principle holds true of the atoms: that, apart from weight and the blows of one atom on another, there must be another cause for motion, from which comes this power that is born in us, since we see that nothing can be produced out of nothing. It is weight that prevents everything being caused by the blows of one atom on another, as it were by an external force; but it is the minute swerve in the atoms, taking place at no definite time or place, which keeps the mind itself from being governed by an internal necessity in all its actions, and from being as it were subdued by this necessity so as to be merely a passive subject.

There must be people who think exactly the same thing about quantum fluctuations. But there is an interesting difference: nondeterministic quantum effects have been carefully studied, and are apparently purely random, with probability distributions that can be derived from the theory. Any consistent deviation from randomness could be (at least probabilistically) observed, and would prove the theory wrong.

I wonder if truly random outcomes can be the source of what we call “free will”. It seems to me rather that free will must refer to the choices of us, of our character and our desires. Free will, then, is quite the opposite of randomness. Free will is not only compatible with determinism, it is a kind of determinism: self-determinism.

Stoic philosophy contains something along these lines:

Chrysippus used the illustration of a cylinder rolling down a hill as an analogy for actions that are within our control (Cicero and Gellius, 62C-D). It is true that the force that starts its motion is external to it. This is analogous to the impressions we have of the world. But it rolls because of its shape. This is analogous to our moral character. When our actions are mediated by our characters, then they are ‘up to us’. Thus, if I see an unattended sandwich and, because I am a dishonest person, steal it, then this is up to me and I am responsible. All things come about by fate but this is brought about by fate through me (Alex. Aphr. 62G). When, however, I trip and fall, knocking your sandwich to the floor, this is not up to me. The chain of causes and effects does not flow through my beliefs and desires.

I don't think nondeterminism means what we have assumed it means, and I have some computer-sciencey things to say about that later. But for now, this will do: It’s a mistake to rush to embrace randomness, desperately, lest the tyranny of a universe operating under natural laws reduce us to mere “passive subjects”. It’s the random choice that is, by definition, meaningless.

No comments: