Monday, 17 September 2012

On Determinism

After my last blog on free will, I said I’d write one on Determinism – which may be quite prudent, as I think Determinism is a word that people mostly misuse.  Determinism, in the sense implied by some kind of universal destiny, means information regarding the laws of physics suffices to determine the entirety of the universe from start to finish. Given the laws the universe has - it seems its entire story from start to finish followed (and will continue to follow) a path that would be entirely predictable and mappable to a series of deterministic computations if we had complete knowledge of it.  This is Steven Wolfram's conjecture. What Stephen Wolfram is basically saying, is that if given enough execution time the majority of relatively small algorithms can compute everything that can be computed.

If Wolfram is correct in his assumption (and I believe he is) then this means that any given (finite) physical pattern or structure can be described by a physical theory - and by 'theory' we mean it is defined as an algorithm or function.  Admittedly Wolfram’s ideas are conjectural at present, but if they are right it means that there aren't any finite objects out there that cannot be described using a theory. With enough computation time a theory has the scope to reach a point at which it will describe any stated physical system.

In theory, determinism is an even trickier subject than free will, because to most people ‘determinism’ means something like ‘The way things will be is a result of how things are and the work of natural laws’. In other words, if we know exactly how things are at the present moment and the laws that govern how the universe works, then we can derive how things will be at some future time.  This kind of definition is something you would do well to forget about when you’re considering free will and determinism, because you’re left with a determinism contingent on human knowledge.  That is, you can know X+1 only if X contrives to fit a mental pattern.  I’m going to show you how I think this topic is best dealt with, but before I do, it is worth bringing up an important distinction regarding how our minds work. 

The way we describe the universe is through the construction of terms and ideas based on our physical perceptions of the world (the macroscopic world).  What we don't have is an adequate way to describe the universe in terms that would give a proper definition to determinism.  We don't even have a proper method of describing the quantum world - even then we resort to using terms implicitly related to the macroscopic world (particles, waves, position, locality, state, spin, collision, energy, etc). 

Imagine the problem in trying to define a universe in terms other than our spatio-temporal terms used.  We find all we have is a reality that’s apprehended from the first person perspective of the physical world.  That's why I think determinism is opaque – words limit us to terms related to the physical.  The best way I've found to circumvent this is to describe the universe in a completely different way.  Every physical system can in principle be described in terms of computation - so what we have to do is imagine the entire universe in terms of pattern, not physical structure.  This is no problem, because it requires a hypothetical description of the universe in terms of pattern storage* (a very large pattern - but small compared with the whole system of mathematics).  So what we can do is define the pattern of the entire universe in binary 1s and 0s.  No doubt this is a far too complex task for any human – it would require execution times that beggar belief - so the easiest thing to do is imagine you are a being who can traverse the entire pattern from outside of the universe (let's call the entire pattern P).  Now determinism becomes clearer, because with the required execution time (it's not literally time, of course) to search the pattern we can observe its determinism. 

Absolute and Relative Determinism
I’ve said that determinism is hard to define.  One of the reasons is that we only get to grips with what absolute determinism is (as per my above definition of an overall determinism) if we can conceive of relative determinism too.  This, as you’ll see, is the key to understanding the universe in terms of an overall determinism – and it is an understanding that is desperately needed, because many believe that modern knowledge of quantum randomness, the Aspect experiments or any of Bell's theorems has led to the conclusion that determinism has been given its redundancy notice, because of the random agitations.  But as we’ll see, this is a misunderstanding.  I will also show why both freedom and determinism are not single qualities that can be put up against each other – they are, in fact, both scaled in a spectrum. 

On first showing, whatever the mind is, it seems to bring about a mechanism that belies its real deterministic nature.   The first way to correct the mistakes is to frame the word ‘determinism’ in its proper context – as a spectrum, not as a fixed quality.  To do this we have to identity the fact that determinism can be thought of in terms of the relative and the absolute.  At the human level indeterminism-determinism is a spectrum related to knowledge.  Here’s a simple way to look at it; if I drop an apple the algorithm that calculates the motion is deterministic because we know what will happen - the apple will head towards the centre of the earth.  If I attempt to track a particle in fluid subjected to Brownian motion then the algorithm that calculates the motion is indeterministic because it cannot predict the pattern it will take.  That is what I mean by relative determinism.  If you know a pattern it can be said to be relatively deterministic, if you do not it can be said to be relatively indeterministic.  This, of course, changes over time (or it can do).  If one day we work out the random patterns in Brownian motion (I doubt we will) then we could call it relatively deterministic because its patterns could then be mapped to a deterministic algorithm.

That was relative determinism.  Absolute determinism is different.  For quick shorthand, the truth about absolute determinism can be summarised thus: “The universe will do what the universe will do” – meaning, there is an inevitability about nature’s laws that shows it will run its course.  Everything within the universe, every thought, every dream, every stone rolling down the hill, every burst of wind, every formation of a planet, every nucleosythesis, every galaxy, every cosmic expansion is all nature running its course, and that course is entirely deterministic.  There is no way to affect change on nature’s plan - she is our sister, and everything we do to believe we have changed the course of nature was really only part of the deterministic inevitability.  In other words, nature has a script already written – and your conceptions of randomness, unpredictability, surprise, and cause and effect alterations are not in any way an alteration of that script – they are simply pages of that script being revealed to us.  That is what I mean by absolute determinism.  Nature’s story is being turned page by page – and this story is underpinned by forces beyond our control.  To say we could affect nature’s overall determinism is about as silly as saying that a drop of water in a waterfall could stop the power of gravity. 

The difference between our normal conceptions of nature and this conception of determinism is that now, instead of viewing those things in terms of the spatio-temporal, we are now considering the script in terms of a pattern of 1s and 0s.  We think we are uncertain about determinism because we deal with nature in terms of its smaller constituent parts, not as a whole.  With mathematics and computation nature tells us something very relevant here; providing that the search space is linked together in a nexus, with indefinite amounts of execution time, we can map anything into a descriptive algorithm or function, giving us a pattern.  We could do this with nature if we had access to it from outside, and could observe the entire pattern.  

But here’s what the objectors are missing; it is because we have incomplete knowledge from inside that we have radically unpredictable events, and it is because we have radically unpredictable events that the indeterminism and determinism spectrum comes in from the inside.  If we had complete knowledge of the universe then its absolute deterministic path would be deterministic to us in the second (the relative) sense too, as well as in the absolute sense described above.  If we define indeterminism as a physical system that cannot be described with an algorithm or function, then there are no (finite) systems that are indeterminate – because all systems can potentially be calculated from a basic equation if we have access to the search space and allow the necessary execution time.  This is where the practical and the theoretical cross swords.  In terms of being a large mathematical object, the universe is a closed system, and as such there is no theoretical reason why anything in the universe cannot be mapped into a descriptive algorithm or function. 

But once we get into the realms of practicability, things change, for we know that systems within nature are too intractable for us human beings to map.  As well as Brownian motion, a good example is the randomness of quantum mechanics – it is almost certain that the randomness of quantum mechanics will always be indeterministic to us.  In wave mechanics, quantum physics suggests that because the wave packet of a particular particle has non-zero amplitude the position of that particle is uncertain to us.  Increasing the number of sine waves gives a ‘compression’ effect which enables us to detect the position of a particle, because the momentum of the particle requires wave number probability.  But increasing waves inhibits the ability to measure momentum.  A wave with a precise position has an indefinite momentum, and a wave with a definite wavelength has no precise position, so for humans uncertainty looms large because we cannot know both the precise position and precise momentum of a particle.

Couple that with the fact that wave packets (like clouds) don’t have single velocities and positions and we soon know that we are observers of limited cognitive and experimental resource, where a kernel of uncertainty must loom large.  Quantum mechanics doesn’t undermine determinism, it merely offers formal tokens that explain why in a universe of overall determinism we are stuck somewhere in the spectrum of relative indeterminism and relative determinism.  That is why quantum randomness, the Aspect experiments or any of Bell's theorems do not impinge on whether the universe is deterministic. 

Some objectors ask; How can we be sure the universe is deterministic?  Here’s what the objectors are not understanding. We know the universe is absolutely deterministic because what we theorise about determinism at an absolute level is based on our practical perceptions of determinism and indeterminism at a relative level.  We generate and map deterministic paths all the time, just at a much smaller scale, and with observations of uniformity at the classical level.  Once we think of nature in terms of mathematical patterns, all we need to do is inductively stretch out the conceptual logic trail to the furthest contingency barrier and we would eventually arrive at a final point of determinism - just as in smaller terms we can generate more simplistic forms in a relatively short computation time.  You see, to reiterate, in the determinism/indeterminism spectrum, the description is subjective because it is a model that recognises that some systems are less humanly manageable than others.  That is why we are always on the pursuit of more knowledge – it is this indicator that tells us we haven’t yet arrived at a full understanding of nature*. 

In summary, unfortunately the problem with this debate has been that many people are quick to change the definition of determinism to apply overly simplistic theories of cause and effect or as a rival theory to the perennially fuzzily defined ‘free will’.  The indeterminism-determinism spectrum comes into play because with our limited capacity some systems are “more deterministic” than others - and that is why ‘fully indeterministic’ and ‘fully deterministic’ are expressions of extreme ends of a vast cosmological and mathematical spectrum, and why, with complete knowledge of the universe it would be, by definition, mappable to a complete deterministic algorithm.

* Footnote: Make sure you're clear of one thing though - this concept of pattern storage is only one way (of many) to describe nature - but it's the best way to describe it to show it is deterministic.  We needed to find this way because nature cannot be described deterministically in those macroscopic terms.  With the above terms, it can. 

Sunday, 9 September 2012

On Free Will

Free will debates seem to come up every five minutes somewhere on the Internet, and seemingly always with no resolution or agreement.  If the issue had been resolved unambiguously then we wouldn’t still be debating it quite so rigorously centuries later.  Ask yourself why a subject never reaches agreement and you'll usually find one of two reasons; either the question is unanswerable, due to some kind of limited human capacity or an inability to frame the question in the right sense; or else category mistakes are being made in the terms and definitions being applied in discourse.  Free will may be one of those philosophical issues about which both reasons apply.  Even if we accept a limitation on how far we can get with the question, it seems to me that the ambiguity of definition kills the debate every time - particularly as virtually nobody seems to insist on rectifying this before the debate ensues properly.  Clearly free will means different things for different people, so the extent to which we can be said to have free will may be similar to the extent to which we say animals have self-awareness – it’s a spectrum, not a definitive ‘Yes we do have it’ or ‘No we don’t’. 

Regarding debates about free will, my first piece of advice is, don’t believe anyone who says we have ‘free will’ until they have first told you what they mean by free will, and what being ‘free’ means in a universe that drives organisms thermodynamically without the slightest reliance on any human thought to do so.  I find the people who declare confidently that we do have free will are usually the ones who’ve given the least consideration to what they mean by free will.  In order to understand why the free will issue is so contentious, we need to see why so many people misunderstand free will, and why their definitions are so fuzzy.  When those who believe we have free will make claims about free will, they usually mean that what we have is something like ‘The capacity to direct one's actions’.  The trouble is, that leads to a further meta question about what it means to direct one’s actions – and then one could take that explanation and ask a further meta question about the explanation behind the explanation, and so on.  This is one of the theoretical problems with this kind of debate; it always engenders layer upon layer of accretive questioning – it’s like peeling the skins of an onion, where each layer of skin represents a fresh way of interfacing with reality.  That’s why free will is a spectrum, not a binary ‘black or white’ problem, and why one can’t logically just say ‘We do have free will’.  . 

Ironically, the grounds on which people claim we don’t have free will are often based on the same kind of faulty reasoning.  Like most issues under debate, free will, irreducible complexity, the existence of a soul, Intelligent Design, or topics of a similar nature, people arbitrarily pick a lens through which to describe a conceptual object, without subjecting their description to proper examination.  Let’s take free will and give it a less ambiguous definition than ‘The capacity to direct one's actions’.  Let’s just call it free choice, by which we mean simply the ability for the human mind to make choices.  Some philosophers say we don’t really have free choice, and the reason they give is that the brain isn’t really making choices, it is only biochemistry at work behind the scenes (i.e. neurons and trillions of connections). 

That’s the big mistake I referred to above; one cannot just choose a particular conceptual layer like the level of biochemistry at which to deny the integrity of a process like free choice.  When told "it's all just biochemistry", why not just deny the integrity of biochemistry by asserting there is no such thing as biochemistry because it's all just quantum physics?  Similarly, why not just deny the integrity of quantum physics by asserting there is no such thing as quantum physics because it's all just mathematics and probability?  No, it just won’t do us any good to think this way; despite the many layers of reality, there clearly is such a thing as choice; I mean, I assume no one forced you to read this blog.  Your choosing to click on the link is a perfect indication that choice exists in nature.  My mind conceives it as a choice in the same way that your mind conceives it as a choice, just as it conceives a riot as ‘violence’ or a cruel remark as ‘upsetting’ or an innocent man going to jail as ‘unjust’ or the weather as ‘inclement’.  At some level these things clearly do exist.

So, we humans do seem to make choices - just as we do seem to observe the weather.  If you want to say we don’t make choices because the brain is reducible to constituent parts, you could equally say that there is no such thing as violence or upset or the weather because everything is reducible to quantum physics.  Clearly, then, through this lens, choice, violence, upset and the weather are all ‘existent’ within nature.  To show this, let’s just consider further two of those things – the weather and choice.  If the weather and our choices are both happening in nature then on what grounds can we say the weather exists and free choice doesn't?  Take a hurricane as an example. The causal factors in a hurricane are connected to everything else in the universe's seamless whole.  A hurricane lies in cycle of evaporation, which lies in complex interactions amongst trillions of molecules, which lies in complex interactions in the quantum world, which lies in complex interactions that extend right the way back to the governing laws in nature's blueprint (however that came about).  So we have no trouble agreeing that a hurricane is part of nature, just like all other physical events and laws are part of nature. 

It must be observed that we feel the same about choices as we do hurricanes – you won’t find many people who think that hurricanes don’t exist, and you won’t find many people who think that choices don’t exist.  Here’s why.  A choice is made by a brain, which is made up of neurons and trillions of connections, which, just like the hurricane, is reducible to complex interactions in the quantum world, which lies in complex interactions that extend right the way back to the governing laws in nature's blueprint.  So, similar to the hurricane, we have no trouble agreeing that choice is part of nature, just like all other physical events and laws are part of nature.  There is no logical reason to accept that a hurricane exists yet deny choices exist.

Under those conditions, I don’t think anyone seriously doubts that the mind has the faculty to make choices.  What muddies the water is that the free will proponents seem to be arguing for more – they seem to be saying not just that we have the ability to make choices, but that we are free in a deeper sense, by which they mean we have some kind of overall freedom that permits us to create our own destiny within nature.  Because of this, the perception I have of people’s interpretations of free will is of two kinds – a soft version (as per my definition of choices) and a hard version (as per our overall freedom that permits us to create our own destiny within nature).

The soft version of free will; We have a mind that has the ability to make choices

The hard version of free will: We have a mind with overall freedom that permits us to create our own destiny within nature, irrespective of nature’s overall trajectory.  

I think the soft version of free will does exist, and I think the hard version doesn’t.  Later I’ll explain how I think the ability to make choices is relevant to our psychology, but first I’ll just say this; you might be wondering how we can make choices yet not create our own destiny within nature.  I think the answer is the same as the hurricane; both our choices and the hurricane exist in nature, but both do not alter the overall destiny of nature, because they are part of that very same destiny. 

The hard version of free will doesn’t exist, and it is for the same reason that the soft version does exist; an overall freedom that permits us to create our own destiny within nature is directly contradictory to nature having its own destiny.  In other words, nature can have a destiny that includes hurricanes and human choices, but it cannot have a destiny that includes an alternative human destiny, because then it would be a nature that doesn’t exist.  We cannot depart from nature’s cosmic plan in the way that a boy can disobey his mother – our destiny is the same as nature’s destiny – we cannot opt out of it or change it or cease from being a part of it anymore than the wetness of the ocean can cease from being part of that ocean.

It is because a hurricane is part of nature that I think the hard version of free will is an illusion.  The universe is a complex nexus of physical interactions that will run an inevitable course irrespective of human will – and this includes the physical agitations that make up the human mind, including our choices.  With the soft version of free will we can observe that choices do seem to be a genuinely true aspect of human cognition in that we make them, and our making those choices turns out to be part of nature’s overall destiny.  Perhaps for clarity's sake we could say that choices appear to exist in conjunction with perception and experience, and that they are an evolutionary utility that places nature's cosmological inevitability in the background of experience. To use an analogy, it is rather like actors on a stage playing out improvisations while all the time being aware that the overall performance and plot pertains to a script that they are not free to change ultimately.

The hard version of free will is a different animal altogether – but to see this I am going to have to explain what it means for the universe to create its own destiny and how it does it.  The thing that undermines the idea of humans creating their own destiny is that the universe has a destiny that engulfs any sense of individual or collective human destiny.  It wasn’t too hard to accept that both soft free will and a hurricane exist in as useful a sense as anything at all in the physical universe can be said to exist.  But the cul-de-sac remains in front of us, because the grounds on which I would say hard free will is not a fact and soft free will or a hurricane is a fact is that the latter is not inconsistent with nature's inevitable trajectory and the former is.  In other words, a cycle of evaporation, choices, a hurricane, violence, upset, justice, and inclemency can be part of the inevitable destiny nature is playing out, whereas hard free will cannot, because one is never 'free' from that cosmic trajectory to create a destiny other than the one nature has already been deterministically blueprinted to create.

Here’s the contradiction with hard free will; it either is part of the trajectory of nature’s destiny - in which case, it is not really acting in any kind of freedom separate from the trajectory, making it not hard free will but soft free will.  Or it is not part of the cosmic trajectory - in which case it is claimed to be no longer part of nature, where, at that point it falls down by not being definable (as per my initial request for a definition).  Either way, the idea of hard free will gets us in philosophical trouble. If nature has an inevitable destiny then choices and a hurricane can logically be part of that universal story without any contradiction. However, if hard free will is part of the universal story then we have a contradiction because it is not really acting in any kind of freedom separate from the trajectory of nature – so it is wrong to call it ‘free’, because by ‘free’ the free will proponent means that nature permits us an implicit ability to act outside any inevitable destiny that nature may hold over us.  

Just to be clear, by “nature has an inevitable story”, I mean that if hypothetically we could step outside of her and watch the story unfold we would see her take an absolutely deterministic path.  Everything within the universe, every thought, every dream, every stone rolling down the hill, every burst of wind, every formation of a planet, every nucleosynthesis, every galaxy, and moreover, the entire cosmic expansion is all nature running its course, and that course is entirely deterministic (deterministic in the absolute sense). If you knew every fact about the universe it would be a story from start to finish that couldn't have been any other way because its laws facilitate this particular path and destiny it has taken.  I don't mean this with regard to any fundamental laws of logic, I mean only that it is nonsense to state the universe we happen to be in could (given all its laws) take another path other than the one it is on. Hence we have the ability to make choices, but not create our own destiny, because nature’s destiny subsumes our own. 

As an overall summary, nature is deterministic, and that determinism brings about human brains that make choices. The universe has an overall cosmic destiny that pays no regard to the human feelings that are part of that destiny. We simply are required to assent to a definition of free will that does define the mind's mental precipitations - something like "Alignment between the self, the desires, and the actions through the ability of the human mind to make choices” would do, I think. That's how the universe can be ultimately deterministic yet bring about creatures that make choices and have emotional will.

In my next Blog I will cover the topic of Determinism

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Obama's Higher Education Misjudgement

I like Barak Obama - I really do.  He mostly seems bright and sincere.  But yesterday I was a bit bemused to hear him say that he wants universities to lower their tuition fees so that “everybody in America can go to college”.  It's the kind of statement that indicates a lack of insight and a lack of sincerity on Obama's part – and I don’t believe those accusations are easily directed at Barak Obama, which makes me think he is engaging in disingenuousness  by vote-mongering to catch the attention of those aspirational Americans who probably feel they are just below the university threshold. 

Let's take the reductio ad absurdum approach and scrap tuition fees altogether, does Obama honestly think that universities could cope with a mass enrolment, 30 or 40 times in excess of the usual number?  I'm guessing not, so why does he imagine lowering the tuition fees will suddenly change the ethos of universities?  It won't. 

But what is the ethos?  Well firstly, the reason student numbers are not higher is not because of the number that cannot afford university - it is because the university capacity extends to a limit.  It does so firstly because university places ought to be sought after, secondly because it is good to have a selection system in which many do not get enrolled, and thirdly because a surfeit of university degrees invokes devaluation on each individual degree in the employment market. 

Here’s another issue; A business that wants a monopoly will keep their prices high, and take a hit on the unsold seats or places.  Theatres are good examples of this - they don't lower their prices nearer the event, and as a consequence they accept empty seats as part of the protocol related to selling high priced seats.  Universities price discriminate according to academic records, cultural background, class and parents' earnings.  John and Jack might both be studying physics - but John could pay 15% more than Jack pays. So while the theatre sells the majority of its seats at full price (save for concessions) and has a few empty ones on the night of the performance, the university fills empty class spaces at lower prices while still charging full prices for those students’ parents that have the means to pay.

Lowering the tuition fees can help some get into college who wouldn’t otherwise have been able to afford it – but the idea that “everybody in America can go to college” is meaningless on two levels; firstly, as I said, a country in which everyone is a university or college student would bring about devaluation in higher education while at the same time reducing the employment market for the young.  And secondly, universities and colleges are not built with a limitless capacity – they are built with, give or take a few, the capacity for just about the sort of numbers that do currently wish to enrol in higher education. 

I said that the statement “everybody in America can go to college” is meaningless on the two main levels. It is meaningful on one level, though; it’s exactly the kind of thing politicians love to say, because it is exactly the kind of thing that the electorate likes to hear.