On Determinism

I read some books last fall that were very interesting. I have already shared some of my thoughts regarding Lee Smolin’s Time Reborn. One of the other books I looked through at the same time (having been led there by a reference to “cellular automata” in my reading of Smolin) was Stephen Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science. These two readings led me to some interesting thoughts, which I hope to develop further in the process of attempting to articulate them here. I also wish to mention at this point (holding it out as a carrot to keep you reading through some of the drier parts) that it all ties in to a key concept in one of my all-time favorite stories, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Most people with even a casual interest in science know that the classical theories of physics (which we call Newtonian after Isaac Newton) combine to create a paradigm in which one should be able to predict the future state of a system with perfect accuracy, provided that one is able to measure its present state with perfect accuracy. Modern physics tells us that there is not only a theoretical limit to the accuracy of our measurements (known as the Heisenberg uncertainty principle) but that there is also (according to Einstein’s theory of relativity) no well-defined “present.”

The Newtonian paradigm was one of such “determinacy” – that is, the idea that the past determines the present, which in turn determines the future – that the very existence of free will was brought into question. Modern physics should have undermined this paradigm more thoroughly than it did. Vestiges of it still remain, and I see them in Time Reborn. Though this paradigm is in fact lamented greatly in Smolin’s book, he struggles to find its alternative. Einstein’s legacy, he argues, was not to dispel the notion of determinism, but instead to give the whole of history a sense of eternal stasis by making time a dimension in addition to space: the sense that the future is already determined, but that due to our mortality, we experience time serially rather than being able to see it all at once. Modern physics, he says, leaves “no role for our awareness” in the determination of history. I share Smolin’s dissatisfaction with this paradigm, but I do believe that an alternative is readily available.

I have already written at great length regarding my objections to the treatment of time as a dimension which is in any way comparable to space, and I will not repeat those particular thoughts here. I have also written about the great difficulty in determining what one might call the “initial conditions” of a system once one abandons the classical ideas of a universally-applicable time and of forces acting instantaneously across any distance; those thoughts do bear on what I have to say next, and so I refer the reader to my earlier post, “Relativistic Indeterminacy and the Holographic Universe:  Thoughts on the Limits of Information.”

You may be at least a little familiar with the concept of “cellular automata” mentioned earlier, though you know it only through a particular example called “Conway’s game of life,” a computer program which displays “cells” which reproduce, survive, or perish based on the number of neighboring cells. It is an interesting amusement, but Wolfram made it much more interesting by reducing the number of dimensions in play (just one, rather than two) and using the second dimension to chart what might happen over time, given various initial conditions and various rules. I don’t have a copy of his book handy at the moment, but one of the lessons I took from it was that it was very difficult to predict what such a system would do merely by examining the initial conditions. Once the rules were applied over time, (once the “computations” were done, if you will) the results were often surprising. Furthermore, it was my impression that a change of state of any single cell could, over time, affect an arbitrarily large portion of the system.

Think about what this implies for us as agents in our own system: the future is unwritten. Our actions have consequences. The future may be pre-destined, due to pre-existing conditions, but it is not pre-determined in the sense that it can be predicted; and far more significantly, we are an integral part of the “computation.” It can be argued that we can make no other choices but the ones we make, given who we are (whether chemically or spritually), but it is us making the choices. The program has to be run before the results can be seen and we are the computer.

It all reminds me of Douglas Adams’ imagining of Earth as a giant and subtle supercomputer designed to crack open the meaning of “Life, the Universe and Everything.” Human beings were a part of its operation, and any one of them supposedly held the key to the mystery once the program completed. Incidentally, I have long regarded Adams’ story as a deep metaphor of some sort. Does God, if such a person exists, have no better idea than we do what the meaning of it all is, and were we created to figure it out for Him/Her? Do we as parents place that burden on our children, not for them to figure out the meaning of their lives but to give meaning to ours? Is life thus like a holiday fruitcake which some of us can find no better purpose for than to re-gift it?

Well, again it grows late, and I think I got what I came here for. Good night.

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