Determinism – Enjoy the Show

This is the third post of a three-part series about appreciating the beautiful world around us through a scientific lens. You can read the full series here.

 

Science is scary.

There is no doubt that science is beautiful – take a look at these liquid DNA crystals.

But there is a dark side to this beauty. When I say that science is scary, I don’t think of the curling tendrils and bloodstained teeth of the animal kingdom. I don’t think about the tragic predictions of our climate, or even our precious world being engulfed by the sun.

What unsettles me most is the complete lack of scientific evidence for my own free will.

 

Let’s set the scene. It’s 1687, and Isaac Newton has just divulged the mathematical foundation of the physical world: classical mechanics. By measuring properties like speed or mass, we can reliably predict the future behaviour of objects. It is clear that these objects behave in consistent, quantifiable ways, and this forms the basis of the following ideas.

Determinism is the assertion that all events are determined by prior causes. For example, the motion of a ball is determined by the combination of forces acting on it. Determinism depicts our entire existence as one grand ball toss – each moment in our world is the only physically possible continuation of the previous moment.

In this world, there is no room for free will. Our decisions are a product of our brain, and our brain is shaped by genetics and life experience. The way we influence the world through our decisions can be predicted. I ate toast for lunch today because of a complex physical interaction between my brain and its external environment, not because I freely chose to do so.

A scan of my brain taken during a research project. Could a system this complex behave predictably?

 

Since the time of Newton, there have been advances in our understanding of the physical world that test determinism.

Take the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle: we are unable to know the exact position and the exact speed of a particle at the same time. If we can’t be certain as to the state of an object, how can we predict its behaviour?

Even more challenging is quantum physics: as far as we know, the collapse of a wave function when a particle is observed is random. This was Einstein’s pet peeve with reality, spawning the famous ‘God does not play dice’.

Let’s come back to the free will we cherish so dearly – if there is randomness in our universe, does that mean we have some kind of influence? An ability that allows us to make active choices and steer our lives down a particular path?

So far I’ve attempted to remain neutral, but it’s here that I’d like to make the first bold statement in my campaign: The burden of proof should lie on those arguing for the presence of free will, not those arguing against it. It is much more logical to assume that free will does not exist until we can prove that it does.

I’d like to think that you, my fellow human, see free will as a phenomenal, extraordinary concept. We know of no decision-making mechanism that is independent of its physical environment – if you found one, you could be deterministically predicted to win a Nobel Prize!

I argue simply that this phenomenon should be treated no differently to any other. That our brain be treated as a typical physical system until proven otherwise.

 

I’d like to make one more daring didactic. Carl Sagan’s ‘great demotions‘ refer to humanity’s changing perspective of our place in the universe. We once believed that we held a special place in the very center, but this changed when we learned that we orbit the sun. It changed again and again until we reached our current perspective: we are but a grain of sand in a medium sized galaxy in a lonely corner of the universe.

Sagan posits that letting go of religious purpose is a demotion that we are in the midst of. The realisation that we have no divinely imbued meaning is just the most recent in a long list of revaluation.

 

Let’s take this idea and look into the future. What demotions might we have in store for us? 

I argue this: the realisation that we have no free will is our next great demotion. If we are currently coming to terms with having no supernatural purpose, can we come to terms with having no superphysical agency?

Can we learn to love a world where we have no free will? 

We’ve returned to where we began – science is scary. These ideas inspire existential dread by the bucketload.

When confronted by these questions in the early hours of the morning, I’ve found this idea to bring myself comfort: we are perfectly happy to watch a movie as keen, emotionally invested observers. The fact that the movie can only ever end one way doesn’t stem our excitement. We revel in possibilities, we theorise, we want characters to make certain decisions. Would it not be reasonable to take the same perspective in our lives? Can we acknowledge that the story of life is determined, and appreciate it all the same?

Whether I freely choose to do so or not, every day I appreciate the beauty of our existence.

If life is a movie, I’m enjoying it. 

If life is a movie, I’m going to sit back and enjoy the show.


6 Responses to “Determinism – Enjoy the Show”

  1. Ethan Newnham says:

    Hi Ameer,
    that’s very kind of you! I’ll try to go through the great points in your comment without going on too long (I’m fighting a losing battle with my philosophical interest)!
    I disagree with the idea that it is determinism alone suggesting that oppression and suffering are necessary. Determinism doesn’t argue that ‘suffering must happen’, it argues that ‘suffering happened because of a complex set of physical processes’. I don’t think that’s controversial! It is perfectly possible for suffering to be reduced/eliminated in a deterministic world… in fact, we are headed in this direction! I don’t mean for an instant to demean the lived experiences of those who have suffered enormously, but I do question whether your quarrel with determinism is in the right place.
    The argument that an absence of free will can disempower people is one I completely agree with. I’ve definitely had experiences discussing the subject which have left myself and others with that feeling. I have a small caveat though: unfortunately, just because an idea gives people a sense of purpose doesn’t necessarily make it true. I admire you prioritising a just interpretation that makes you feel content (as I’m on that same mission), but it would feel incomplete if I only looked for this interpretation in a world where I was already secure.
    To bring it full circle, I definitely agree that we can take a very active role in our movies – we are the main character after all!
    Thanks for your comment,
    Ethan

  2. Ethan Newnham says:

    Thanks Ethan, that really means a lot to me – and glad you enjoyed the ~questionable~ MS paint drawings!

  3. Ethan Newnham says:

    Considering how much that can affect people, that’s very high praise! Thanks Rebecca! I hope there was a bit of light at the end of the post to make it all worth it 🙂

  4. Rebecca Super says:

    This blog has inspired some existential dread. But, I must say it’s worth it for the lovely trilogy! Really well done!

  5. Ethan Wake says:

    Wow. This is an awesome series. Congratulations on writing something so well written, integrated, and considered! Your illustrations are a joy, too!

  6. Ameer says:

    Hi Ethan, I thought this was a very well-articulated and thought provoking post. As someone who is decidedly not a determinist and who has never studied physics, it was curious to see that there are areas of science (rather than just philosophy) that appear to back up deterministic thought. To me however, the idea that there is no free will serves to disempower people and limit our individual sense of ourselves.

    And while I appreciate your position, it suggests that war, oppression and suffering are all necessary aspects of human social hierarchies or at the very least that the suffering endured by the oppressed must necessarily occur before their potentially ordained liberation. This paints an unjust interpretation of reality which I cannot accept.

    Though I can’t disprove your theory, I personally feel more content in the belief that we are capable of taking an active role in the “movie of life” and influence the world around us. As the anthropologist David Graeber said, “the ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.”