Tag Archives: Determinism

Determining Freewill and Freewheeling Determinism

I love the cartoon above, even though I think it is wrong. Or, maybe more accurately, misleading, which is often worse than wrong. The caption is especially problematic, as it forces the otherwise brilliantly provocative cartoon into an unnecessarily limiting conceptual box.

It preys on fears of determinism by drawing our attention to the inevitable “end result” rather than the choices made along the way. In doing so, It trivializes the details of that along the way in a fashion similar to how believing the ends justify the means diminishes the moral content of a given action.

Indeed, we could rewrite that latter ethical claim into an agency claim of the “ends neutralize the means.” But by doing so, we are apt to miss three interrelated points:

    1. Freewill can never be absolute (or what freewill is not)
    2. Freewill requires determinism to exist (or what freewill we have)
    3. Freewill in any meaningful conception of the word exists only in the along the way (or what freewill we need)

One of the problems with language is that we sometimes  put words together to form a conceptual picture that seems viable to us, but isn’t. We will even stand our ground by saying that we can conceive of it being the case, so it must be a valid concept,  when really we can conceive of no such beast. Instead, we are just deluding ourselves, confusing our masterful ability to  conceive of conceiving with that of the conception itself.

Here’s a couple of examples to flex our thinking around this issue:

  • I want to study the pure forest. So can you please cut down all those trees so they don’t get in the way of my thinking.
  • I want to see what pure blue looks like. So can you please take all that color away so it doesn’t distract me.

Absurd, huh?

Yet we often assign such absurdity to things involving thinking, saying nonsensical yet specious phrases like “pure thought” or “I think, therefore I am,” where both think and thought are imagined to be capable of being  parceled out from the environment  and viable on their own.

THINKING IS ALWAYS ABOUT SOMETHING

It can be about objects, about other thoughts, or about itself. But it has to be anchored in some way for it to even exist. For if it isn’t, what exactly is thinking doing? How is operating? What is happening?

The same goes for freewill.  Absolute freewill sounds nifty, don’t it? The supposed ability to do whatever you will. But what exactly are you doing when invoking such a power? How is it operating? What is happening? The very moment freewill is exercised, it is at the same time necessarily being limited – determined – by the thing under its will.

Consider it this way:

You want to build a house. You might choose straw or wood or brick. But that choice will then limit what other choices there are and so on. The original choice might be expanded to include stone or 1001 other different kinds of materials, but the limit would still be in play. Sure, you can change your mind, which would be another example of exercising freewill, but that would just mean the limit changes form, and not that there is no limit in play.

The limit, of course, is a form of determinism.  For it determines what the outcome can and cannot be, like whether or not the wolf’s huffing and puffing can blow your house down. Our body itself is a limit, as, for example, we can’t breathe underwater, making living underwater difficult and problematic.

You might think, oh, but that’s not a conceptual limit, for I can imagine a being that can breathe underwater as well as air. But so what? That changes nothing. For if you live underwater, the living underwater limits apply instead of the living on the land limits. For if they didn’t,  what exactly are you doing when you exercise the will?

DETERMINISM IS NOT SOMETHING BAD

In fact, we rely on determinism to do anything — to will anything — at all. For If things set in motion didn’t behave a certain way, or at least were likely to behave a certain way, our will would actually be meaningless. It would be just a hope, a pray to the Gods, and not a will of any kind.

Yet determinism gets a bad rap because we don’t like the idea of our fate being dictated to us. So much so, we look at the cartoon and say poor ignorant cow, he doesn’t realize whatever choice he makes he will end up being turned into hamburger. Well, last I checked, all of us will eventually die, so at least that much is already determined for us.

And that’s a pretty big determined. So are we just ignorant cows. Maybe.

But what if we take death out of the equation? I don’t mean imagine a case where we don’t die. Rather, I mean not having death be the ultimate marker of the vitality of our choices or as the litmus test for freewill.

I’ve been playing around with inventing  models that I think might  best illustrate the  coexistence of choice and fate, of freewill and determinism. I’ve been trying to understand not only how they relate to each other, but how we can find meaning in that relationship.

THE TUBE:

Instead of focusing on the gruesome end of us and cows, let us travel along the walls. Round off the ceiling  and floor. Tilt the room. it is no longer a room, but a tube.  Imagine a ball thrown hard into the tube and it banging from side to side as it travels along its downward path. It’s going to end up wherever the tube leads, whether  to death or assorted stops along the way like a new job or boyfriend.  However, the route of its sideways travel itself is less predictable. That’s close to where our freewill lies.

THE BOILING POT:

We boil a pot of water to cook our pasta. Some of the molecules will be vaporized right away. Some will do so over the course of the cooking. And some not at all, unless we keep the pot on and at a high enough temperature. Regardless, while it is easy to predict that the water will boil, it’s far more difficult to predict which specific molecules will vaporize and when. That’s where our freewill lies.

Now with both scenarios, one could argue that individual route and individual vaporization, although difficult to predict, would not prove impossible to do so, if we had access to all the information. So isn’t every part of along the way just as much determined as the end of the tube?

That could be the case. And if it is, I might have to agree with Spinoza’s necessitarian assessment. There would not only no meaningful choice that we could make, but there would be no real choice at all. Such choice at all levels would only be illusion.

But my gut tells me there is something else going on that is at the heart of the freewill we need. Something that presides over the strange yet necessarily required interrelationship of freewill and determinism.  And no, I’m not talking about God, as that would simply take us back to Spinoza. Instead, I am meaning something far more sacred and profound:

RANDOMNESS!

Tubes, Butterfly Wings, and Free Will

Segueing from my last post, a what now recently came into my mail box.

The assistant to the city manager e-mailed me about another opportunity to get involved: the Montpelier Conservation Commission has a vacancy. So I’ve applied for that, like I did with the Development Review Board. It will be a few weeks — sometime in October — before the council votes on appointments to it, but I’ve put my application in, and that’s as good of a first what now as any.

But there are lots of nows until then. So learning from my past and hoping to give a better impression this second time out come October, I’m going to do some research on what the commission has done, plans to do, and hopefully talk to some relevant people live about the role.

I might still not get it. And if I don’t, I’ll try to learn from it and see what other, perhaps better kinds of actions I might take towards achieving my civic goals.

Nothing unusual about that: taking action, seeing effects, and taking more actions based on the effects you’ve seen. Comes with being human and having faith that are actions do generate effects.

And they do. But they also kind of don’t.

The don’t is what I’m thinking about right now, which escorts me towards free will territory. But I won’t cross over too far into that borderland for this particular post, as the ground there quickly becomes treacherous and tricky to navigate, starting with even getting at a satisfactory definition.

But here on the edge of it, I’ll cash it out simply and oversimplified as what kind of power you have to take action in the world, which further cashes out, it seems to me, as what kind of effect you can have in the world.

Now I used to be a big butterfly believer: the idea that a small action — like the flapping of a butterfly’s wings — can have large effects. And I still am to some degree and still think a small action can. But lately I’ve started thinking about scope and how difficult it is for any action to have true consequence.

All actions have effects, but effects can get cancelled out. And if they do, from the point of view that encompasses all the relevant actions, there is no real effect.

Imagine a tube. You throw a ball down it and it ricochets every which way, but it still comes out the end. You can throw it down the tube again and it will likely go a different every which way, but it still spits out the same place at the end.

It’s not necessary to know each and every point of ricochet to predict — to determine — the outcome. You just have to be able to see the tube that holds the events not the events themselves.

And of course the tube doesn’t have to be an actual tube nor look anything like a tube. It can be a life or lives, a war or wars, a society or civilization itself.

Nothing revelatory about this. Myths mine it heavily and we have words ingrained in us like fate, destiny and the ubiquitous phrasing full of implicit deterministic belief “meant to be”.

And of course the tube doesn’t have to be confined to the plight of humankind. It can be one large enough to funnel the world, the solar system, the universe. When all is said and done, the sum of it all — our all — will likely be just a single ricochet off the side of a much larger tube.

A tube that I would think is God if I were religious-minded. But I’m not, so I’ll stick with envisioning it as a tube; yet, nevertheless I can’t help but think how bizarre it is for the ostensibly religious-minded to harm others in the name of that tube, whether in Kenya or Andromeda.

Maybe their answer to what now is driven by an unconscious realization that they are going down the tube, as is everyone, whether they want to or not. They think that if they can claw their way over others, they might stop their dropping, or maybe somehow arrive at a more prime spot at the end; win favor with a tube that is not so much indifferent as unaffected.

Being neither a god nor a tube, I can’t help but be affected by the goings-on halfway around the world. I can’t help but think that each and every person is in this tube together and that should be a common thread that binds us; one that should encourage us to help make the mutual descent as pleasant as possible.

Being just a mortal, I do not have the power to stop, or really even slow, the absurd amount of bloodshed caused by others.

But, as just a mortal, I can sew my what nows with that aforementioned common thread and do things like try and join a conservation committee where I might help preserve natural beauty for everyone to see. I can pick up an author from the airport for a book festival, try to be nicer to my husband, and take time out from whatever I’m doing to pet my cat.

Small acts for sure. But then again, in the blind eyes of the tube, all acts are small.

But they don’t all have to be, and shouldn’t be, so damn shallow.