Jan 15, 2024
“Take Vegas! The casino’s ‘edge’ is as little as 1% on some bets. At those odds, I should be able to play forever…but probability is not actuality.”
“If we could know the position and the momentum of every ‘particle’ at any one time, we would know the position and momentum of every particle at every time.” This is the classical definition of determinism - and it certainly seems to make sense. Consider 'A, then B’ for example. If we believe that A ‘causes’ B, then knowing A means knowing B as well. But let’s take a deeper dive:
There’s a problem with our premise, isn’t there? Turns out, we can’t know both the position and the momentum of any particle at any time (Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle)…that’s certainly a bit of a bother for determinists.
Worse yet, this is not an issue with our ability to know A; it’s an issue with A itself! It’s not we who are ‘uncertain’ about A; it’s A that is uncertain. It literally can’t make up its mind what it wants to be for Halloween. A is an existential hero. It lives in a permanent state of angst as it searches for an identity that doesn’t exist!
Determinism’s apologists (yup, it has ‘apologists’, Stephen Hawking among them) admit Heisenberg but marginalize him: it’s not X that is determined, it’s P(X) – the probability of X. Schrödinger’s Wave Function, simplified as P(X), evolves deterministically.
We’re funny about math. We know it’s an artificial logic that incidentally yields uncannily accurate predictions about the real world, but we treat it as the real world. We mistake the map for the territory; we fall prey to what Whitehead called the ‘Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness’.
Take calculus, for example. Brilliant! Don’t leave Earth without it. But it has nothing to do with the real world. Calculus describes a world that is perfectly continuous…but we don’t live in such a world. Still, it is often useful to treat the world as if it were continuous, hence calculus.
Take Vegas! The casino’s ‘edge’ is as little as 1% on some bets. At those odds, I should be able to play forever and never run out of money. But probability is not actuality. Probability doesn't prevent me from losing my life’s savings at the craps table, pulling out a gun, shooting 20 fellow punters and taking my own life.
The laws of probability are indeed determined, but the stochastic consequences of those laws are not. Food processors are wonderful things; they smooth things out. But when you come to my house for Thanksgiving dinner, your mashed potatoes will be ‘real’, i.e., gloriously lumpy. “Glory be to God for dappled things…” (Gerard Manley Hopkins).
We live in a chaotic world, a world in which a butterfly can flap its wings and trigger a tornado, a world in which an untimely ‘7 out’ can set off a mass killing spree. So now we’re face to face with our second challenge: A chaotic world is chaotic because it is strictly determined; anything is capable of triggering anything else. It’s causality!
But how is that any different from a world in which events happen randomly? Wings flap, dice roll, shots are fired, punters perish – these things just happen! What about the connections that seem to crop up between events?
Well, what if it’s we who fabricate those connections - after the fact – triggered by accidental resemblances (Freud)? A is round, and B is round, so A and B must somehow be related. What if we make our world look rational…when it isn’t?
So we find ourselves in quite a pickle. It makes no empirical difference whether events are determined, chaotic, or random. It doesn’t matter whether everything is caused by something else, or everything is caused by everything else, or nothing is caused by anything else. And you still say we don’t live in a weird world, Horatio?
Clearly, the concept of ‘causality’ has no heuristic value. If we want to understand (1) why there are any events at all and/or (2) why events are what they are, we’ll need an entirely different approach.
In our world, events are connected but indeterminately. Sometimes B follows A like an Irish twin; sometimes B looks a lot like the postman. We live this every day. “Nothing ever changes!” Until it does! And then, Whoa!
Continuity and catastrophe – lumpy, that’s how the world is, not at all the way you’d expect it to be if it were determined, chaotic or random.
The world is ‘patterned’…and that pattern is not just in our heads! Ultimately, our world displays solidarity, but not continuity. How can we model such a world? Every event is juxtaposed between what used to be and what is not yet, between what is actual and what is ideal. Without this differance (‘quantum of difference’ per Derrida), the world would be static (and hence non-existent). There would be no incentive, no motive force, for change; temperature could never be other than 0° K.
In Norse mythology, the world comes to be in the misty gap (Ginnungagap) between ‘absolute heat’ and ‘absolute chill’. Likewise, in our mythology, events come to be in a ‘gap’ between what already is and what might yet be. The lure of an unrealized future tugs on the inertia of an unsatisfying past.
Every novel event originates as a reaction against its ‘actual world’, i.e., the ordered multiplicity of prior events. Only one class of entity could simultaneously provoke judgment on what is and appetition for what is yet to be: that’s Value - objective, eternal value – the Good as it manifests in our world. And what might such ‘manifest values’ be? At a minimum, Beauty, Truth, and Justice.
Every judgment reflects a valuation, and every aspiration presupposes a goal. But judgment, aspiration, realization, and communication are terms we normally associate with conscious (e.g., human) behavior. They are aspects of reality that resist characterization as determined, chaotic or random.
Something seems to be buffering the chaos. Have we entered the controversial realm of ‘intelligent agency’, aka ‘free will’? Every event resembles every other event in some way and to some degree; the ‘resemblance’ can even be ‘negation’ (ground templates figure). But no two events are ever identical. In fact, the phrase ‘identical event’ is an oxymoron.
It is as if events were sampling prior events as part of their process of becoming. We see the shadow of the past in the present, but not in a way that is ever perfectly predictable…or ultimately controllable. Ergo History.
There is yet one more relevant model to consider: Entanglement. In the 1950s, quiz shows were popular on TV. In those days, contestants were sequestered in soundproof booths. Each would answer questions posed by the host, but neither would know what the other player answered.
The same apparatus was used to test for ESP (Extra Sensory Perception). Instead of general knowledge questions, the host would draw a card from a standard deck of playing cards and ask the contestant(s) to say whether the card was red or black. If a subject were right significantly more than 50% of the time, ESP would seem to have been demonstrated.
Entanglement is similar. After a Google of questions, a pattern is confirmed. If A answers X, then B also answers X…always; or if A answers X, B never answers X. But there’s no possibility of communication between A and B. (In reality, it doesn’t have to be always or never; any meaningful deviation away from 50/50 could indicate entanglement.)
Entanglement requires no ‘intelligent agent’ to mute the chaos. An ‘entangled universe’ is neither causal nor random, yet events are coordinated, and that coordination does not require conscious intervention.
When two apparently exclusive theories (e.g., intelligent agency and entanglement) account equally well for the same phenomena, it is wise to ask whether the two theories (as ‘Big Chill and Big Crunch’ per Roger Penrose) might actually be the same theory in different guises. Failing that, we should inquire whether the two explanations are complementary (e.g., particles and waves). Can you see where this is going? Well, Bon Voyage! Better you than me. Write to me, though; let me know what the world’s like…once you’ve gone over the edge.
David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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