Saturday, June 21, 2014

Ave, Bill!

My friend Bill Keezer tackles the entire universe in this ambitious post. If I understand Bill correctly—and I'm not sure I do because much of his post is technical and I'm just a religious-studies major—his argument isn't meant as a proof for the existence of human freedom but as a sort of groundwork, in the Grundlegung sense, on which such an argument might be built. Using the example of a public fountain and taking us through the myriad potential trajectories of the water molecules, Bill argues that the incalculable number of possible paths the water molecules take is nevertheless constrained, as can be seen by the general shape of the spray coming out of the fountain. The overall pattern of the fountain's spray, i.e., the attractor, roughly defines the shape of that spray at the anthropic level, but at the atomic level what we see is much more freewheeling. Bill moves from this notion to the notion that it is difficult, if not outright impossible, to apply a strictly deterministic paradigm to any theory of mind. The mind evinces its own innate unpredictability; while ultimately constrained by its own attractor (the shape of which, I imagine, is undetermined—more on this below), the mind is capable of generating untold permutations and combinations of human behavior. Again, this isn't an argument for human freedom, but it's a step in that direction.

If a materialist determinist like Sam Harris were to read Bill's post, he would likely say that the countless ways in which human behavior might play out are no evidence at all that humans are free. (Harris denies the existence of human freedom.) Water molecules in a fountain might follow a dizzying number of possible paths, but does water possess free will? Of course it doesn't. The factors that determine where a given water molecule is at each given moment causally propel the molecule forward in time and space. While not necessarily predictable, the water's path is nonetheless fully determined.

Bill actually addresses this issue toward the end of his post. He seems to imply (and he can correct me if I'm wrong) that there is a practical issue to be resolved when someone makes the cavalier claim that any phenomenon, simple or complex, is fully determined. Determinists, Bill notes, usually assume that unpredictability is the result of our inability to measure and track phenomena precisely and comprehensively (no one has yet created a device that can track every atom in the universe). But given the sheer number and scale of micro- and macro-phenomena, the sheer number of ways the universe can unfold, such measurement/tracking is, practically speaking, impossible. This makes the claims on which determinism rests practically unverifiable, which in turn makes determinism something of a faith-based attitude, i.e., not particularly scientific, if by "scientific" we mean "rooted in empirical evidence."

I think Bill is on the right track. Determinists need to be challenged—vigorously—on this assumption underlying their worldview: "Prove the determinism you espouse!" If I drop an egg onto a hard floor from a height of two meters, it's easy to predict that the egg will break and its contents will splatter. These splatter patterns will all look similar because they conform to the attractor (which I almost view as a sort of Platonic Form) for that kind of event. But each individual egg-breaking incident will play out, in its micro-details, very differently from every other such incident. If there is any determinism to be found in such an event, it's at the level of the attractor, not at the level of the individual atoms.

I also find that Bill's argument seems to dovetail with an insight I wrote about back in 2012. In that earlier essay, much less technical than Bill's and taking an approach that conforms more to my religious-studies background, I argued that one of the "symptoms" of human freedom is inherent unpredictability. Friend and commenter Malcolm Pollack challenged my post when he wrote:

If you accept Harris's materialistic view, then humans are nothing more than complex systems of atoms (which, by the way, behave, in our modern understanding, according to non-classical, rather than Newtonian, laws).

So why is a human being's behavior any less predictable than that of any other complex material system?

After some thought, I ended up writing the following answer:

...there's something about the nature of consciousness such that [sentient] beings defy prediction: they create worldlines that squiggle through space-time in ways that indicate both aliveness and consciousness, and these patterns are qualitatively different from the worldlines of abiotic, non-sentient phenomena.

I've thought, now and again, on what exactly is "qualitatively different" about human beings' radical unpredictability and non-sentient objects' much tamer unpredictability. Bill's latest essay might provide a clue: perhaps the difference between humans' (and by extension, animals') unpredictability and that of inanimate objects has to do with the shape of the attractors. Human beings, as I said above, squiggle through space-time; the molecules of a fountain can do nothing other than fountain through space-time; human attractors can thus take an infinite number of different shapes: the hallmarks of aliveness and consciousness. The attractor that governs the behavior of water in a fountain (or kitchen faucet, or waterfall), by contrast, can only ever evince a fountain.

In any event, I found Bill's post interesting and thought-provoking. I apologize to him if I've taken his words and ideas out of context, but his essay sparked enough thought in my tired brain that I had to write some sort of reaction.

Had to? Was this blog post determined...?


1 comment:

Kevin Kim said...

My friend Bill Keezer emails the following comment:

Kevin, you are correct in that I am not trying to prove liberal free-will, but rather laying a ground for it—an undetermined universe allows for free will whereas a determined universe does not. I have done some struggling with trying to prove liberal free-will at the neural level, but haven’t succeeded yet.

The main thrust of this post is to attack determinism directly at its belief that the actions of atoms are determined, and thus get rid of an atomically determined universe. The fountain was an example of what I considered atomically undetermined behavior that nonetheless showed predictable behavior from a number of constraints, the resultant water flow fell within a definable area deemed an attractor.

In the case of the mind, I wanted first of all to make atomic determinism null and void, which I think I did, by showing that the transitions in even multiple atoms to a slightly different state would have no effect. Second, I tried to show by the very construction and operation of the brain at a cellular level that it was undetermined as well. Though I am not a materialist, I allowed materialism, because I believe the argument applies even more strongly in that case.

Your exegesis of my comment on proving determinism is superb. I had not taken to the point that it was unverifiable. I also like your comparison to an attractor to a platonic form. There definitely are similarities. The only quibble I would make is that I would call an attractor a constraint, not a determinant. There is nothing absolute about attractors. For instance if there is a breeze blowing, the shape of the fountain changes, in a predictable way, though again, with margins of error.

I certainly appreciate your extensive comments and discussion.