Social Question

ninjacolin's avatar

If something didn't happen, how can it be said that it was ever possible?

Asked by ninjacolin (13779 points ) February 8th, 2010

Example question: Yesterday, was it possible for you to climb on your roof, rub your belly and yell: “I’m the king of the world!” at the top of your voice?

If it didn’t happen, then how could it be said that it was possible? If the idea never came into your head or if you just didn’t feel like it at the time.. then how could it be said that it was at all possible? Aren’t “feeling like it,” and “knowing about it” some (but not even all) of the prerequisites for its occurrence?

Another example question: Could your microwave oven fall from where it is right now? Is it at all “possible?” Or is it impossible?

All things considered, What exactly are the limits in the realm of possibility?

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125 Answers

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

there are no limits – we don’t know what could have been and what is yet to come – technically my microwave isn’t supposed to fall off but if by some weird freak accident, my 3 cats were about to get on top of the fridge (where the microwave is) then they’d throw it off.

ETpro's avatar

Quantum mechanics debunks that line of thought. A radioactive isotope will decay. It is not possible to know when it will decay until it does, but we can know the half-life when 50% of all such atoms will decay for a given isotope, and we can know that it will decay, so it is defintiely possible that it will decau even when it doesn’t so so for an extended period after its half-life.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@ETpro I find this answer of yours incredibly stimulating…I love any discussions of radioactive decay. Hot

JeanPaulSartre's avatar

… what has happened happened it’s all that could have happened because it’s “in the books” – however anything is possible from this exact moment forward – at least as long as we encounter time that elapses in the way presently perceive it.

ETpro's avatar

@Simone_De_Beauvoir Ha! Gets me going too. I even let quantum mechanics fix my car back when I had a car.

Trillian's avatar

Ooo, I can’t wait to see what Jeruba says.
I think that question is fallacious. Because something did not happen does not mean that it wasn’t possible. When you go into surgery, you sign a form. you understand that all these things could happen to you as a result of the anesthesia. You hope they won’t, and so does your anesthesiologist. Or anesthetist. Whichever. So when you wake up in the recovery room, you didn’t go into a coma, or have your b/p bottom out, and you didn’t turn into a vegetable or die. That doesn’t mean that the possibility did not exist. It means that all the variable factors in the right sequence did not come about.
You could have climbed to the top of the roof, rubbed your belly, and shouted or danced a jig. Not that it wasn’t possible, but the variables did not come about. You didn’t feel like it. That would have been my number one variable. Do I feel like climbing on the roof? Nah! I’m simply not motivated to do so. I could get motivated say if…zombies suddenly popped up and the roof offered a relative safety. or if some nut offered me a great amount of cash and a ladder….
But we live in a world of inconceivably endless possibilities, with branching upon branching forged with every decision made…

Shae's avatar

Check out Schrödinger’s cat.

Trillian's avatar

@Shae I was always afraid to look….I know it can’t turn out as well as Michigan J Frog. ;-)

ninjacolin's avatar

@Simone_De_Beauvoir said: “technically my microwave isn’t supposed to fall off but if by some weird freak accident, my 3 cats were about to get on top of the fridge (where the microwave is) then they’d throw it off.”

so… because your cats aren’t there, it’s impossible for it to fall off at this moment?

@Trillian

“So when you wake up in the recovery room, you didn’t go into a coma, or have your b/p bottom out, and you didn’t turn into a vegetable or die. That doesn’t mean that the possibility did not exist. It means that all the variable factors in the right sequence did not come about.”

so… because all the variable factors in the right sequence did not come about, it was impossible for you to die in this instance?

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@ninjacolin no, it’s still possible – my example is one of infinite random things that can happen to lead to the fall of my microwave.

ninjacolin's avatar

then why isn’t your microwave falling?

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@ninjacolin guess it ain’t meant to be at this moment, this day

ninjacolin's avatar

:) so it’s not possible at this moment? (say, within the next 10 minutes)

lilikoi's avatar

Definition of “possible”: capability of existing or happening or being true

Example question: Yesterday, was it possible for you to climb on your roof, rub your belly and yell: “I’m the king of the world!” at the top of your voice?

Um, duh, yes, it was possible. It didn’t happen because I saw no need for it.

Another example question: Could your microwave oven fall from where it is right now? Is it at all “possible?” Or is it impossible?

Yes, yes it could. It is possible that I’d go up to it and push it off the shelf.

I think you do not understand the definition of possible, and that you are confusing it with probable, likelihood, chance….

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@ninjacolin no it’s always possible, every moment but every moment that passes it was possible and is still possible in the future.

lilikoi's avatar

@ninjacolin No. It isn’t probable; it is possible.

ninjacolin's avatar

@lilikoi said: it was possible [but] It didn’t happen because I saw no need for it.
therefore it was impossible.

@lilikoi replies: “No. it isn’t probable; it is possible.”

if it’s not probable, then how is it possible?

lilikoi's avatar

Okay, clearly you do not know the definitions of either of these words. If it is not probable, that means the likelihood of it happening is slim (although it still could, i.e. it is still possible albeit unlikely). If it is impossible, that means there is absolutely no chance of it happening; it is neither possible nor probable.

Trillian's avatar

Hmmm I think I’m missing something. A greater mind than mine will be needed here. The possibility still exists because of the randomness of the universe itself. One can never count on order, because the universe itself slides towards entropy. @Simone_De_Beauvoir microwave sits in its appointed place but the possibility is always there that it will fall. Not because of anything in our ordered days and nights, but in the randomness of the universe itself, a stray variable, an earth tremor, an explosion nearby, an unforseen and therefor unguarded against variable caused the dang thing to fall.
Same with the surgery. the possibility existed. that’s why you had to sign the consent before you went in. A moment of inattention by the nurse anesthetist, an unknown allergic tendency, an undiagnosed condition, any of a thousand variables made your not coming back from under the General a possibility. I wonder towards what this question tends. As I said, I could be mistaken, and it will take a smarter person than me to articulate this. I believe that I’m correct, but not badly enough to be adversarial.

ninjacolin's avatar

@lilikoi said: clearly you do not know the definitions of either of these words
maybe not, but that’s what you’re here for. ;)

“possible” to me has always meant: “there is a way for this to happen.”

but it seems pretty clear to me that if you didn’t feel like going out on your roof last night, then there was no way for it to happen. meaning, literally that there was “absolutely no chance of it happening.”

lilikoi's avatar

Some circumstance could have changed my presence of mind last night and made me want to do that, and then I would have done it. For example, if a friend came over and said lets go up on the roof – I may have. See, there is one possibility; there are as many more as an imagination can conjure. The possibility was there, it always is.

One could argue that the day and night having passed, it is now impossible for me to sit on my roof yesterday, however others will counter that there is a possibility for time travel via wormholes or some other yet undiscovered twist of physics that would in fact make it possible for me to rewrite history.

So, as @Trillian neatly explains, the possibility always exists, however improbable it may seem.

Trillian's avatar

@ninjacolin No, I must respectfully disagree. Just because I don’t feel like doing something does not preclude the possibility of it happening. I didn’t feel like going on my roof, but then there was a flood and I had a choice of staying in my house and drowning or going on the roof for a chance and saving myself. (Or I had to get away from those damn zombies)
To say that there is no way ever is the error. You could say that there was small chance of it happening, but you couldn’t, with any reasonable degree of accuracy, say that there was no chance.

ETpro's avatar

@ninjacolin In my case, it would be dead easy for me to climb up on my roof, even now as we close in on midnight here in Boston, and rub my belly while yelling “I’m the king of the World.” We have a lovely roof deck with a nice wide set of stairs leading up to it.

It’s also quite possible that the rest of the neighbors in this condo would call the police and have me locked up in the nut house if I did such a crazy thing, so that tends to restrain my enthusiasm for this particular possibility—but it’s still possible. Right up to midnight, it will be. Once the stroke of midnight passes, I won’t any longer be able to do it today—I will have to put it off for some momemnt of future insanity.

SABOTEUR's avatar

“Whatever the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve.”
W. Clement Stone

ninjacolin's avatar

i agree with (live by) that quote, @SABOTEUR. however, if you read into that philosophy more, you learn that the only things that can be achieved, are the things that can be believed as being “possible.”

for example, i can’t believe that I can do 600 push ups. therefore, i can’t do it. i can believe that i can do 1 pushup though. which is why i can achieve that. it doesn’t mean that whatever we think up can exist, it means that whatever we can see a way to accomplish can be accomplished via that way.

lilikoi's avatar

@SABOTEUR And sometimes, even what the mind of man cannot conceive and believe, still exists – e.g. that the world is round not flat, that America lay between Europe and the East, that atoms are not the smallest elements of life, that an ant is proportionally stronger than a person, ...

lilikoi's avatar

@ninjacolin See, you are confusing possible with probable again, though. It is still possible that you could do 600 push ups, it just is not probable. You could find some motivation to train so as to be able to do 600 push ups, yes it is possible.

ninjacolin's avatar

i can’t do them right now. it’s impossible.

lilikoi's avatar

If someone put a gun to your head, you might change your mind, don’t you think?

Jeruba's avatar

Are you recognizing any difference between “didn’t happen” and “hasn’t happened yet”?

ninjacolin's avatar

sorry, what do you mean, @Jeruba?

@lilikoi i could try, but i would get shot before the end of it.

lilikoi's avatar

How can you be sure without living the experience?

ninjacolin's avatar

Shoot, i knew i forgot something. I can’t do 600 pushups in 1 minute. this is impossible.

ninjacolin's avatar

@Trillian @lilikoi @ETpro

Sounds like you guys are offering a definition of Possible that goes more like this:

That can be done under hypothetical circumstances.

lilikoi's avatar

It would be unlikely, such that I would not put my money on you, but it is still possible. Who knows? Perhaps all clocks will cease to function 30 seconds into your timed trial and the world will completely lose track of time. Then 1 minute is the same as infinity.

ninjacolin's avatar

Yea, I think your definition of Possible requires improbable hypotheticals.

HTDC's avatar

If I remember correctly, theoretically speaking, quantum mechanics says if you walk into a wall enough times eventually you’ll go straight through.

ninjacolin's avatar

but what about Practically speaking?

lilikoi's avatar

Well, yeah, if it hasn’t actually happened, it isn’t real and therefore it is hypothetical.

No, my point is that possibility is a completely different beast from probability. Probability is simply a measure of how possible something is. Possibility is boundless by its very definition.

lilikoi's avatar

Practically speaking, it isn’t probable but it is still possible.

Shuttle128's avatar

I have to take ninjacolin’s side here. For something to be possible it has to have consequences that directly lead to this thing happening. Without these conditions that cause something to happen it would not be considered possible.

It’s hard to justify this though as we can only look at past experiences. We think we might have the ability to choose an outcome to our liking, but it may simply be that we have only the ability to do the things that are brought about by certain conditions. In the case of not going up to the roof, there were obviously conditions placed upon your behavior that caused you to not go on the roof. If you were to go back and relive the same experience there would be no way that you could choose to climb to the roof.

Trillian's avatar

So we just whip out a golden bail, build an improbability machine, throw in a piece of fairy cake and a cup of hot tea, and figure out the improbability factor, turn it on, feed in the figures, and…..

lilikoi's avatar

and it rains leprechauns!

lilikoi's avatar

Merriam-Webster says possible is:

1 a : being within the limits of ability, capacity, or realization <a possible but difficult task> b : being what may be conceived, be done, or occur according to nature, custom, or manners <the best possible care> <the worst possible circumstance>
2 a : being something that may or may not occur <a possible surprise visit> b : being something that may or may not be true or actual <possible explanation>
3 : having an indicated potential <a possible housing site>

ninjacolin's avatar

yea, I think Possible is one thing and Hypothetically Possible is another.
Possibility cannot be measured. It’s simply either Possible or Impossible. It either will come to pass or it won’t. There aren’t degrees to it.

Trillian's avatar

hehehehe! Yeah, on that note, I think I’ll go see to the diodes that have been bothering me all down my left side. ‘night y’all.

ninjacolin's avatar

i’m off to dinner myself. :)

nice chat all. keep it up

lilikoi's avatar

By your definition, if something is unlikely to happen it is impossible.

Trillian's avatar

oooo, I wish I had seen that a minute ago. Possible and hypothetically possible are really the same thing, You can’t be so dismissive. Well, you can but it costs you credibility. Gaahhhh!

lilikoi's avatar

@Trillian Yes, this is exactly what I was trying to say!

Jeruba's avatar

@ninjacolin, your question seems to attach some importance to tense: it’s worded in the past. Something didn’t happen. It was or wasn’t possible.

But that time element is just a matter of point of view, right? If it was possible, and conditions remain the same, then it still is possible, is it not? So it still could happen. It just hasn’t happened yet.. The possibility remains. (I think this is how a lot of us deal with our obligations.)

So how can you base a notion of the existence of a possibility on the fact that something hasn’t happened? If it happened, that means it went from the possible to the actual. I would say that if it did happen, then the possibility might be reduced (if the microwave has fallen and it is now on the floor, it is less likely to fall now than it was before). If it hasn’t happened, that might make the possibility greater.

Trillian's avatar

@lilikoi I thought it was just me. @Jeruba, interesting thing about time perspective. I’m under the impression from somewhere that time is not linear. That all times are heppening at once, but that we can only percieve time in a linear fashion. That it is possible to step out of time when one breaks free of the bonds set by the human body. That we actually are able to experience what we perceive as future when we dream sometimes. This concept fascinates me, and dizzies me at the same time. I can’t now remember where I read or heard that… Maybe it was Stephen Hawking..

Blackberry's avatar

Isn’t that an argument for being against abortion too? “Don’t kill the poor guy he could be the next beethoven omgomg”. I don’t buy it. I could be the black version of hitler, that doesn’t mean it’s within the realm of possibility though.

Shuttle128's avatar

@Jeruba This assumes that there is no universal viewpoint outside of time in which you can view possibility from a different perspective. We are bound to the present moment so we cannot say for certain that something is possible if we cannot predict the future. All we can say is that something that happened in the past happened because of certain factors, certain facts of reality that held. If we consider, outside of our timeline, that these exact same facts of reality are held but we are observing objectively we might find that one and only one outcome will ever come from these factors.

In the case that we could go back with exactly the same initial conditions I would think that it is highly unlikely that any other outcome would be possible. I can’t say for certain because I’m not perfectly certain of whether the brain is subject to quantum randomness. I do believe though that the brain, being a macro object (in comparison to electrons), would be influenced very little by quantum behaviors.

If you want to talk about many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics in which every possible quantum state has its own timeline then you might say that it is possible for anything to happen, but really I don’t see what significance quantum fluctuations might have on someone’s motivations at a particular time.

ninjacolin's avatar

@Jeruba I agree that time is very important in this discussion. Whether things are “still” possible isn’t relevant to this question.

The examples we’ve discussed all had time limits. Yesterday, right now (within 10 minutes), within a minute of time. With unlimited time, sure, something may happen eventually but that’s not what i was focused on.

Is it possible to put a man on the moon? Yes, but only under the right set of circumstances. Is it possible to put a man on the moon without any of the right circumstances? No.

@All: Agree or disagree?

The only things that ever happen at a given time are the things that can possibly happen. Everything else during that given time, despite being hypothetically possible, were practically impossible.

ninjacolin's avatar

@Shuttle128 said: “I can’t say for certain because I’m not perfectly certain of whether the brain is subject to quantum randomness”

if you were to rewind and play it back, you would be rewinding the quantum stuff too to the point where it was and everything would be playing back from that spot and it would all unfold the exact same way.

lilikoi's avatar

What is possible is what is hypothetical; they are one and the same.

ninjacolin's avatar

i hear what you’re trying to say, @lilikoi. but that’s simply not what the definition you posted from the dictionary implies.

i also agree that that is often how the term is used. but i don’t think it’s proper.

hypothetical = hypothetical.
possible should = possible instead.

Shuttle128's avatar

@ninjacolin The problem with saying that rewinding everything would play back the same “quantum stuff” is that many people hold quantum behavior to be inherently random and non-causal. You can’t say for certain that quantum decoherence will be the same under the exact same circumstances.

If you take the many worlds approach then all quantum states are borne out and we would be traveling along a certain outcome of quantum states while other possibilities split off to form their own timelines. In this case the path that is taken is simply a function of the probability distribution of world outcomes. Again, it is entirely random which world we find ourselves in. If you claim that we travel along the exact same timeline then this becomes a non-argument since if you travel along a certain timeline it is logically necessary that the outcome be the same.

The brain is very chaotic and may alter course easily due to a few differences in quantum states of a few electrons. If this is the case then there may be more options available than you propose; however, the possibilities will still be highly constrained by the large scale structures in the brain and may still lead to an outcome similar to what you describe.

Sorry for playing Devil’s Advocate.

I do believe that the brain is not much effected by single quantum states, but we don’t have enough evidence to fully rule this out. I believe that because the brain’s actions are dominated by the overall structure of neurons and the level of certain neurotransmitters that the effects of quantum states are rather negligible. The effect of neuron structure is many times greater than the effect of a single electron state so I think the constraints on possible actions are mainly of Newtonian scope.

ninjacolin's avatar

“many people hold quantum behavior to be inherently random and non-causal.”

I know they do. I just don’t think they have any reason to believe this.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@ninjacolin certain possibilities are less probable than others (like you being able to do 600 push ups or me turning into a tutu wearing ballerina) because possibilities have to take certain orders of the given universe into consideration…but all that aside, there is no predicting what can come tomorrow and the laws of the universe may change…(read Stephenson’s Anathem…you’re talking exactly about the stuff in the book)

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@Blackberry actually I believe that’s exactly what it means (you have no way of knowing the future)

Blackberry's avatar

@Simone_De_Beauvoir Indeed. You can somewhat control it though, too.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@Blackberry no, you think you can control it but you might not be able to – that’s another possibility because you don’t know if things will change tomorrow and what you thought was controllable will no longer be so.

Blackberry's avatar

@Simone_De_Beauvoir But…until it changes, you’re controlling it…..right lol? We’re controlling our lives now by choosing to go to work everyday.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@Blackberry yes, it seems we have controlled some stuff in the past and this morning but all other moments from the moment after I write this sentence are up for grabs.

Blackberry's avatar

@Simone_De_Beauvoir Haha, yeah I guess so, but one can certainly make probable predictions on what could happen? For example leaving work after it’s over.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@Blackberry sure but that’s because of all the stuff that’s happened in the past, not because you know the future (predictions are nothing more than using a pattern you’re used to and extending it into the future)

Blackberry's avatar

@Simone_De_Beauvoir Ahhhhh touche, very correct : )

ninjacolin's avatar

you can’t control it guys, you’re both wrong! :P

candide's avatar

because anything is possible, just not necessarily plausible

ninjacolin's avatar

when something is not plausible, 0 chance that it would work out, why would it still be considered possible?.. isn’t this impossible?

candide's avatar

nothing is impossible, but I must admit that a rollerskating hippopotamus that juggles hedgehogs whilst blowing cube-shaped bubbles out of a pipe is not very plausible…

ninjacolin's avatar

why does the word “impossible” exist?

candide's avatar

because some goober put it in the dictionary

ninjacolin's avatar

so… if anything is possible.. is it possible for something to be impossible?

candide's avatar

it is possible that this thread is going nowhere….

ninjacolin's avatar

well, i’m trying to win an argument with you at the moment.
i don’t like the idea that “impossible” doesn’t exist. i don’t know where you and a few others have gotten the idea that “everything” is possible. “anything is possible” is just an expression of optimism meant for brightening someone’s day, it’s not a grammatical rule.

candide's avatar

well, you’re going to have a hard time winning an argument because I am not arguing with you. I have no stance on this. But it is interesting…

candide's avatar

how about my favourite: “There’s always the unexpected?”

ninjacolin's avatar

oh! so, you’re declaring me a loser and yourself a non-competitor is that it? interesting tactic. nc takes notes

yes, there’s always the unexpected. :) but when it doesn’t happen as expected, i’m quite content to conclude that it was impossible for the unexpected to occur.

candide's avatar

you’re so funny! I think that perhaps you should read my responses before trying to argue with them – there’s nothing but jelly!
oh, and ps your responses have been really good!

ETpro's avatar

@ninjacolin I’ve been thinking about and looking into your question ever since you posed it. Here’s what my studies have produced to date. We know that at a quantum-mechanics level, classical reality (Yes/No +/-) breaks down. Instead, we deal with a probalistic world of waveforms where a particle like an electron may, at any given moment, have a spin of +½ or -½. If we disturb the electron’s quantum space by observing its spin, we collapse its possibilities and it thereafter behaves like a particle instead of a wave.

As Cohen and Stewart put it in The Collapse of Chaos We can think of the arrow of time as ”...a moving boundary at which the [quantum/classical] context changes—a traveling catastrophe in paradigm space.” Once the boundary passes, all quantum states have been observed by it, and are now fixed classical-mechanics states. Before it passes, all possibilities exist.

ninjacolin's avatar

if all possibilities exist then why is it we never observe anything in defiance of the laws of physics?

ETpro's avatar

@ninjacolin Oh, we experience things in defiance of the laws of physics from time to time. When we confirm such observations, we change the laws of physics. Bear in mind that our “laws” are human constructs. At best, they are mere approximations of what we have observed imperfectly in nature. And they are often not at best. :-)

Perhaps a better way of phrasing it is that all possibilities that exist exist till observed. In the process of observing which one is “true” the probabilistic wave collapses and we are left with only one of the quantum possibilities. In the case of an electron, it can have spin up or spin down—two and only two possibilities of spin. It has a mix of both till we measure its spin, at which point we collapse its possibilities. Likewise, measuring a particle’s momentum interferes with its energy. Unobserved, it can have any energy and momentum possible to it. Once observed, we know what the measured value was at the point of observation and have changed its unobserved value in the process of observing the measured state.

So think of the boundary of context change as a moving wave of observation. Before it passes, all things that are possible remain possible. This allows for pure determinism to be controling what happens at the point the arrow of time drags its boundary of context through time, and also allows for sentient beings to have free will that may or may not rely strictly on some program laid out from the foundation of space-time.

ninjacolin's avatar

@ETpro, first of all, I want to assure you that I understand your illustrations very clearly.

@ETpro said: “think of the boundary of context change as a moving wave of observation.”

Why would I want to do that when all evidence points exactly to “a program laid out from the foundation of space-time”??

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

Anathem! Anathem! Anathem

ETpro's avatar

@ninjacolin Actually, we have evidence of there being natural laws, but we also have evidence of there being chaos, and of free will. We simply cannot prove whether all the behavior of the universe was coded into its rules from the beginning of time or not. For that matter, we don’t even know if time had a beginning. We think there was a Big Bang—evidence tends toward that. If nothing existed before the Big Bang, then that was the beginning of time. But that leaves us with the absurd Genesis story, :In the beginning there was nothing. Then it exploded.”

That’s about as unscientific an explanation as the Biblical Genesis story, and in the biblical one, should we chose to accept it, Man did get free will by eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

Then again, we could posit a universe of Big Bounces, where either increasing entropy triggers the next big bang or acceleration of expansion curves space-time till everything that is racing ever faster away from the original Big bBang eventually collides back into itself. In a Big Crush and explodes again. Perhaps every possible scenario plays out in an infinite succession of bounces.

And then there is the multiverse possibility.

Here’s a staggering possibility. The human brain has about 100 billion neurons and perhaps 100 to 500 trillion synaptic connections. The universe has particles and objects that dwarf that number. Every subatomic particle in the universe is connected to every other subatomic particle by quantum entanglement. If one moves, every other one ‘knows’ it moved. So why can’t the universe be a giant thought machine? And if it is, why can’t it have free will? Most of us ‘think’ we do. Whether we do or not, if the Universe is God, it wrote the rules it plays by. If it wanted free will, it would simply write the rules to give itself that.

I tossed the quantum mechanics “boundary of context” thought out for fodder for conversation. I am not sure it is right. It could also be that the spin of the electron isn’t actually behaving at all as we think it is. We may just be asking nature the wrong questions as we try to observe it. But for right now, we ‘think’ that observing its spin collapses its quantum wave.

If I wanted to understand a tree, in the reductionist scientific approach, I could play 20 questions with it till I thought I understood what a tree is for. I could cut it down, trim away the limbs and hollow it out, then throw it in a river to see if it floats. Finding it does, I would have clearly established that a tree is a boat.

Of course, had I instead cut it down, trimmed it to a nice even cylindrical shape and erected it in a hole in the ground, that set of questions would tell me a tree is not a boat, but rather a telephone pole.

Given the uncertainty needed in our understanding of the universe, I do not think we know enough yet to justify the claim that it is a watchmaker’s project clicking away exactly as it was determined to do.

ninjacolin's avatar

Science works on observation.
As a scientist, if I observe under controlled circumstances for 24 years that every time I drop a ball it hits the ground instead of flying away into the air… is it unscientific to tell my friends and family: “Hey, balls fall downward when dropped!” ??

if the universe, over the course of 24 years, has always produced the following moment exactly according to the last moment’s physical laws.. is it unscientific to tell my friends and family: “Hey, the universe is deterministic!” ??

Of course the future may one day give us a contrary example, but as is, it is perfectly scientific to admit that SO FAR.. to the best of our ability to observe the workings of the Universe, it seems to behave quite consistently in a deterministic fashion.

ETpro's avatar

@ninjacolin I will not argue against gravity. I’ve far more than 24 years of experience with it, and it’s held up so far for me. From what I read, that observation goes back much further than you or I. But it is a great leap from saying that balls obey the law of mass attraction to saying that sentient beings decide what they do because each and every decision they make was determined by the physical laws of the universe. To say that is an act of faith in determinism, because the distinct impression we get within our own consciousness is that we can, from moment to moment, decide what to do next.

What’s your field of study?

ninjacolin's avatar

Field of study: Colinology. :)
i’m not really a scientist, i was just making an example

It’s no more of a leap of faith than saying that the next time you drop a ball it will go down rather than up. I’m simply basing it on what i’ve observed so far: Historically, the only languages i am able to speak are the ones I spent some amount of time learning. I can only do the math that I was taught in the past. I can only eat the food that was made ready for me. I can only see the people that came into my line of vision starting from without it.

Fact: I have never observed anything that was uncaused by the natural order of things. Never. Not once. So, Scientifically, why would I assume that the next things I’m about to do or the next things I’m about to observe would somehow be caused without said order of things?

That requires a leap of faith.

It would be like predicting that tomorrow human babies would be born with wings. There’s no evolutionary basis for believing that fully functional wings would develop in human babies starting tomorrow. So, why would they spontaneously generate wings? Because I “choose” them to?

Similarly, what reason do I have to believe that my next thoughts and decisions would arrive spontaneously instead of through the causal bio-chemical order and processing of my brain?

ETpro's avatar

OK, the next time you drop a cat, what will the animal do? Things with volition are much harder to predict than inanimate objects. We can observe that when you drop a cat, it quickly twists to land feet first, but not all cats do. And it’s a coin toss whether it turns clockwise or counterclockwise.

Do you feel like what you are going to do in one minute was laid out from the foundation of the universe?

ninjacolin's avatar

i only have a human brain. with this brain i can’t even predict the exact moment when the toast will pop up from my toaster. how do you expect me to predict what a random cat will do when dropped?

Complex Predictions by Derren Brown:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

NASA makes complicated predictions all the time about where shuttles will and won’t go.

Whoever built the Empire State building in New York made a prediction about what the building would look like and whether it would last more than 2, 5, 10, 30 years without falling under it’s own weight.

When you put the work in to understand enough variables you can make predictions about the future. But it’s silly to think we can guess at something very complex and get it right. It takes a lot of work to get a prediction right unless what you a predicting is VERY simple. For example, that I will breath oxygen tomorrow.

ninjacolin's avatar

to be noted, the fact that NASA and the engineers behind big construction projects are predicting the way humans will behave given the money they offer, the stress they’re being asked to take on and the abilities of the workers have..

in the case of a zoo or a circus or Marine World or an animal shelter, there are predictions being made about how the animals will behave. How they will enjoy their environments, how the staff will take care of them successfully.. things like that..

we predict things all the time and we’re right about almost everything we ever seriously predict. such as how to make our boss happy, what bus route will get us where we want, what waiting area to wait at before boarding a plane.. things like that.

ninjacolin's avatar

@ETpro said: “Do you feel like what you are going to do in one minute was laid out from the foundation of the universe?”

sorry, forgot to answer.. this seems mathematically sound given all the evidence. since everything i know of has a cause it must all come down to one big cause at the “end” of the line going backwards.

i may not know for certain, but i do know that i don’t have evidence to the contrary.

ETpro's avatar

Thanks for the thoughts. I am as much a scientist as you, and as you can see cause and effect all around me. But I also know that despite best predictions, circus animals sometimes turn on trainers. My experience shows me that human behavior is not entirely predictable and that, in fact, the moment a human realizes you might be trying to predict their behavior in order to exploit it, they will change it just to spite your plans. So my agnostic self is left with the answer of “We just don’t know.” when asked if the universe is entirely determined.

ninjacolin's avatar

in fact, the moment a human realizes you might be trying to predict their behavior in order to exploit it, they will change it just to spite your plans.”

there you go again! you just made another prediction about how humans will behave given a specific circumstance.

circus animals sometimes turn on trainers.

as i said, most of our predictions come true. an animal trainer spends a LOT more time safe with his animals than he does being attacked.

also consider, how many times have you been hit by a car or run over by a unicorn when crossing a street? we all do this activity a lot, our predictions about our safety may fail us only once or twice in an entire lifetime, if at all.. and if it does fail us, we often blame ourselves for not having thought about it enough to make an accurate prediction.

anyway, i hope it’s clear how my conclusion on the matter was.. caused.

again, we don’t know for certain, but we know everything so far has been caused according to the order of physics.

ETpro's avatar

This is a little awkward. I am used to arguing with Creationists and Intelligent Design disciples about why the scientific method should be respected. I have far less practice at explaining to someone too enamored with Science why it must be viewed with some suspicion—not deified. But here is trying. Let’s see if I can come up with some metaphors to show how a rules-based Universe might make room for unpredictable free will.

Imagine we want to build a box that will tell us what light will do when it hits a surface or travels through a given medium such as a glass lens. We might build such a box and get useful, reasonably accurate and similar results from it using two very different approaches.

Newtonian-Classical-Universe Box
We could calculate the bounce of light off a mirror by measuring the light’s incident angle to the mirror and applying the rule that light will bounce off the mirror at the same angle that it hit it. Through the glass to air interface of a lens, rays are bent a predictable amount based on the refractive index of the glass. So our box could crank out a good approximation of what real light will do. Is that how nature’s calculator works? We don’t know. It could work more like our second model.

Probalistic-Quantum-Universe Box
Being we live in a Universe governed by quantum mechanics, Nature might instead use a very different approach to yield the same result. In this box, Nature considers every possible path light could follow after hitting a surface and rejects all but the one that yields the fastest path. Light still bounces off the mirror just as it did in our classical physics calculator, and behaves the same way when passing through a lens, but we are deriving our answers in a very different way.

Since we built our Classical Physics box tailoring its computations to give us a close approximation of what we observe in Nature, we really don’t know how Nature’s Light Redirection Box works. In a probalistic Universe that Quantum Mechanics tells us we live in, it’s quite possibly the Probalistic-Quantum-Universe Box.

Taking our calculator box a step further, let’s build a Newtonian-Classical-Universe Box to calculate the orbit of Earth around the Sun. To keep it relatively simple, let’s allow that our box only needs to deal with a strictly Newtonian Universe having perfectly flat space-time. No Relativistic curved space. Let’s further simplify the task by saying that for our thought experiment, only the Sun and Earth exist. There are no other gravitational influences on either body—no other planets, no asteroid belt, no moons, no Milky Way Galaxy, no other parts of the Universe. Simple as 1,2,3; right? Not really.

To be fully accurate even in our drastically simplified Universe, our box must first map every single atom in Earth with its X-Y-Z coordinates in relation to the apparent center of Earth. We would need to distinguish each atom by its location and it’s elemental mass. These atoms are not static. Each exists in some wobbly probalistic pattern that we would need to map and then derive a center for. Those atoms in the atmosphere of Earth are particularly motile. When we turn to mapping every atom of the Sun, there are roughly 9×10 to the 56th power atoms to map there, and their motions are all incredibly chaotic. Nonetheless, it’s just a math problem and given a supercomputer of almost infinite capacity and a program of equal complexity, it could be done. Now we have a starting point to calculate the actual near-elliptical orbit of Earth at the time we took our measurements. Of course, if anything varied, which we know it does, we would have to run our calculation again each time the dynamical system we are measuring changed.

Because such a calculation is beyond the capacity of any supercomputer network we can even conceive, we actually further idealize things and treat Earth and the Sun as perfect spheres having their center of mass at their actual center. This gives us a reasonable approximation of Earth’s orbit. When we send a space probe up, we simply adjust its path as it travels to compensate for the inaccuracy of our measurements.

If we try to apply a Accurate Calculator Box to the Universe, things get far, far more complex than our simple example of calculating the orbit of Earth. Now we MUST include all matter and map it to the center of probable location for every atom in the Universe, and we cannot deal with flat space-time. We must map to curved space time with all sorts of distortions around collections of mass.

Unfortunately, this effort falls apart at the very first step. We can’t figure out exactly how much mass there is in the Universe. The mass of the Universe is designated as omega (Ω). By definition, an Omega of 1 would be the exact amount of mass needed for the Universe to expand to a certain point, then hang at that boundary, neither expanding nor collapsing back into itself due to gravitational pull. For all Ω below 1, the Universe will expand forever. For all Ω greater than 1, it will collapse back into a Big Crunch.

We like to think that Ω should be 1. We can measure observable matter and infer what the Universe’s mass must be, but we find it is about 0.25. Our current answer to this “missing mass” problem is that there must be “cold dark matter” and “hot dark matter” accounting for nearly 75% of the mass of the universe. Not so tidy. We have never observed this to exist any more than we have seen God under a microscope. As of now, the only justification for the existence of dark matter is that it makes our calculations work. So are we really calculating Nature’s laws, or coming up with formulas to match our own imperfect observations?

Further, the CORE satellite has observed a lack of uniformity in background radiation left over after the theorized Big Bang. This is exciting because the observations match pretty closely with what our theories predict for a universe with Ω = 1. Very cool—except that if the universe has a mass of Ω = 1 then the outer arms of spiral galaxies rotate at the wrong speed., They actually revolve around the galactic nucleus at more like what we would expect for our observed Ω of 0.25.

So we have to wonder just how much the rules we use to calculate behavior of things around us match the “Laws of Nature” and how much they are just fudge factors carefully selected to give us answers that mesh reasonably with observed facts.

Now, given this beginning uncertainty, imagine building a Probalistic-Quantum-Universe Box to calculate which of all the probalistic quantum possibilities a sentient being will chose when a given input is supplied to her box. How does Nature calculate that? Maybe she doesn’t. Maybe she leaves it up to the sentient beings to decide.

I don’t want to shake your faith in the reductionist scientific method. It is a useful tool that gives us interesting results. I just want you to see that salvation is by faith whether in a supernatural being or Nature’s laws. Don’t condemn the religionists who ‘believe’ in something they cannot prove then go on to make the exact same error yourself.

Shuttle128's avatar

Despite the fact that we do not know the truth we can observe that our scientific theories are very accurate. The approximations we make for high level phenomena like gravity are perfectly okay to make because the displacement of a few billion atoms does not change the final outcome in any conceivable way. I think you mistake ninjacolin for being a full on reductionist. You can observe that cause and effect are a part of every theory whether it be a high level theory such as general relativity or the interaction of subatomic particles. Cause and effect is probably the most well confirmed observation about the universe and actually underlies every theory.

Sure you might say that anything we observe to be caused by something else could eventually be broken up into constituent parts but those parts too are expected to follow causality.

My argument against free will is dependent upon the higher order computational functions of the brain, not individual electron and atom locations and states. Though it could be broken up into its constituent parts the explanation loses meaning if this is done. The brain’s function is based on well understood computational models and chemical interactions caused by external and internal factors. There is no function within the brain that could allow anything but one outcome to propagate from a certain set of conditions.

The actual prediction of someone’s actions are obviously far beyond our current possibilities, and I don’t think ninjacolin was attempting to say that he could reliably predict all actions. We can develop models that are fairly accurate in prediction but there will always be a division between models and the actual physical processes. This does not mean that causality does not hold, simply that we cannot describe the chaotic process with a model that is defined enough to give perfectly accurate results.

What ninjacolin, and I, seem to believe is that underlying reality, whether predictable by us or not, is causal. Even radioactive decay, although random, is causal as decay is caused by the isotope being in an unstable energy position.

ETpro's avatar

@Shuttle128 My debate with @ninjacolin is not really about strict reductionist principles but about absolute determinism. I realize that is is an incredibly subjective observation when I say that I “feel” as if I have free will. I am not a dualist, and realize that such a use of “I” as a separate observer able to act on the mechanics of my brain’s neural network takes me dangerously close to that position. But that is where my thought process takes me so far. I can look at what my brain tells me to do, and what I would do if not for wanting to prove a point, and then decide I want to do the opposite. No rule-based computer known can do that. We are making feeble attempts at building a self-aware computer, an AI. But we truly have no idea how to do that yet.

It seems to me that self awareness is an emergent property of a neural network with over 100 trillion neural connections. But all the world’s supercomputers connected via the internet match and exceed that neural connection count, yet they are not self aware. Some animals seem to be moving toward becoming self aware. What happens in a living brain that takes it from the point of just executing survival-based programs to the point of realizing it is executing a program, and that it can rewrite the code?

Shuttle128's avatar

@ETpro The awareness of current state and possible states is very likely a phenomenon that occurs due to feedback within the brain. Many animals have this ability as well though few, if any, are on the same level as humans. The ability to classify has a large impact on what an animal can experience or understand and also has an impact on how an animal can classify its own state and possible states. The human brain is high in both of these necessary abilities and so we have self-awareness.

The internet cannot reflect upon large portions of its state and cannot classify its possible states. It has no ability to affect its own state either. I would not be surprised if a very large electronic neural network with the right kind of feedback mechanisms could become self-aware. The problem with this is that in order for it to be self aware it must be able to observe the self apart from the external.

Self-awareness may simply be the classification of oneself apart from the environment so complex feedback, internal state observation, external state observation, and some classification mechanism must be present.

I think you hit pretty close to how I like to explain self-awareness with your last sentence, though I don’t think that the transition is as defined as that.

ETpro's avatar

@Shuttle128 & @ninjacolin Whatever the process, deterministic or emergent, I think we can all agree that it is an extraordinary computer that would decide to ask these questions without having been externally programmed to do so.

ninjacolin's avatar

Firstly, I’m going to make the most important statements of fact that I can conceive about these discussion. No theories allowed. Only facts:

The universe as we know it is not random.

Think about it and think really really really hard about it. The universe does not produce random results. If there was a way for me to make the text blink, I would make that sentence blink on and off. But since I can’t do that, I’m simply going to repeat it and this time, I’ll ask that you read it out loud to yourself and see how it sounds. This isn’t to be patronizing, this is because I would like to know your reply after doing this:

THE UNIVERSE AS WE KNOW IT IS NOT RANDOM

To the best of our knowledge, everything that ever happens is caused by a prior event. There is no probabilistic universe, that is absolutely nonsense. It is not at all representative of what we experience. It has nothing to do with reality as we know it.

Now, the only response you could possible have to these words must begin something that sounds a lot like: “That’s not true, the universe is random, there is no order to it what so ever. At the very least, some “things” happen in the universe entirely without cause. We have observed this.”

It’s important to understand that these words are untrue. You ought to be able to agree with me.

So, what’s left? The original words, of course: The Universe is not random. Everything that we have ever observed in it, has been caused by something. To assume otherwise is necessarily (which is a very strong word) to believe in “miracles.” To assume otherwise is contrary to everything we have ever observed.

@ETpro, everything said in this post is either 100% accurate, to the best of your knowledge or else it is less than 100% accurate. I’m curious to know which you believe it is and why.

ninjacolin's avatar

In the probabilistic universe, @ETpro said: “Nature considers every possible path light could follow after hitting a surface and rejects all but the one that yields the fastest path.”

You’ve described a universe with rules. Order rather than randomness. :)

ninjacolin's avatar

@ETpro said: “But that is where my thought process takes me so far. I can look at what my brain tells me to do, and what I would do if not for wanting to prove a point, and then decide I want to do the opposite. No rule-based computer known can do that”

Your brain is a rule based computer than can do that.

@ETpro said (earlier): “the distinct impression we get within our own consciousness is that we can, from moment to moment, decide what to do next.” and then more recently: “I realize that is is an incredibly subjective observation when I say that I “feel” as if I have free will.”

I would correct this: We don’t feel as if we have free will at all. We feel as if we are determined. This is what it feels like to be determined.

When someone asks me my name, I don’t say “Bob” or “Jim”.. I say “Colin.” Why? Because I will feel as if I am lying or joking otherwise. I can’t help the fact that I believe my name is Colin. I’m determined to believe this is the case.

If I feel hungry, I can’t arbitrarily choose to believe I’m full. The hunger pains force me to conclude that I’m hungry. If I’m late for work, I can’t ask my boss to simply believe that I’m on time. Even if my boss really wanted a project done on time, he can’t simply believe it is so. For him to change his belief from “I believe the project is not done” to “I believe the project is done” cause is required.

all beliefs require a cause. without a cause, belief is literally impossible. not just “improbable”... impossible.

thank god shuttle was around to handle all the sciencey stuff! for the record, i think i agree 100% with his comments

ETpro's avatar

@ninjacolin We actually do not know if all things have a cause. It is easy to fall into the error of letting human thought constructs intercede, thinking that our laws of science are the laws of Nature. We think in regularities, lumping things we observe together if they are similar so that we can make sense of them. But in truth, Newtonian physics does not accurately describe how Earth orbits the Sun, even if you go to the extreme of calculating it down to the center of domain of each atom. Nor does Relativity. In fact, you can’t even generate a formula to calculate the orbit of Earth using relativity. Neither of our Laws is how Nature does it. We do not know how Nature calculates it. We know a couple of very useful approximations that we can use to do useful things, and that is good enough.

A totally causal universe has to break down at some point. What caused the first cause? I have no quarrel with the observation that most things are causal. I have observed that too. But when you move from that observation to saying ALL things are causal, you have made the same leap of faith the religionists makes when they say God is the uncaused cause.

Shuttle128's avatar

Causality underpins all of our theories thus far. It is an assumption about reality that we make on a regular basis and it has held. I concede that we cannot know the truth about the laws of nature, I even concede that we are not moving closer to the truth, however, the assumption of causality is necessary for any theories we make to have any predictive power whatsoever. We predict things on an ever expanding level and accuracy is increasing in these predictions. The assumption of causality allows us to do this, without causality we could not make predictions at all. It appears that causality is a good assumption. This does not mean that everything is causal and it doesn’t mean that causality is a law of nature, just that the assumption of causality leads to accurate prediction. This is all that is needed to argue ninjacolin’s style of determinism.

The n-body problem is simply of not being able to find a closed form solution for all problems. Sufficient numerical solutions can be arrived at using general relativity.

The argument of a necessary first cause breaks down when time does not exist. Causality may break down in black holes as well. Just because the assumption of causality does not hold in some cases does not mean we cannot assume it where it is applicable. It may not be necessary to say that the universe was caused at all, but in parts of the universe that are effected by time, causality is a good assumption.

ninjacolin's avatar

for the record, i was totally right in my prediction about breathing oxygen. i did it all day yesterday and today so far! :)

@ETpro said: “We actually do not know if all things have a cause… I have no quarrel with the observation that most things are causal. I have observed that too. But when you move from that observation to saying ALL things are causal”

I hope you can see that this isn’t accurate. (Unless i’m missing something) Consider:

Yes, it is true that “most” things you have observed, to the best of your knowledge and awareness, are causal. I agree.

However, it is also true that “all” things you have ever observed, to the best of your knowledge and awareness, are causal.

Unless of course you can name 1 single thing you have observed that doesn’t, to the best of your knowledge and awareness, have a law-abiding cause.

ninjacolin's avatar

@Shuttle128, i find myself without sufficient reason to assume causality breaks down in a black hole. Whatever black holes do, we’ve observed that they do it quite consistently.

“It may not be necessary to say that the universe was caused at all, but in parts of the universe that are effected by time, causality is a good assumption.”

There is no benefit to assuming that we are independent of any and all laws. Which brings me back to this comment from ETpro:

“This is a little awkward. I am used to arguing with Creationists and Intelligent Design disciples about why the scientific method should be respected. I have far less practice at explaining to someone too enamored with Science why it must be viewed with some suspicion—not deified. But here is trying. Let’s see if I can come up with some metaphors to show how a rules-based Universe might make room for unpredictable free will.”

A really great introduction, ETpro. :) Made me smile.

I get the sense that you believe it is somehow to our benefit to believe in free will assumption. So, i wanted to let you know that I disagree. I’m confident that it is to our benefit to accept the deterministic assumption over the libertarian assumption.

Shuttle128's avatar

Well, gravitational time dilation may actually cause time to stop in its bowls. We can’t see this since nothing past the event horizon can be seen, but it remains a possibility. Causality seems to require time to function; after all, how could a later state follow from an earlier state if later and earlier have no meaning? Since we can’t observe it it doesn’t really have much effect on what we can see of black holes anyway. Yes, what we’ve seen of black holes are causal; however, what we’ve seen is matter outside of black holes that are not extremely effected by time dilation. We certainly do see the initial effects of this dilation though since gravitational redshifts have been observed.

I think that the deterministic assumption makes explanation of thought processes, social behaviors, and function of the brain much easier. In order for free will to be in theory form some sort of explanation would need to be conceived and proposed. This also has major implications when it comes to accountability and teaching methods. Sociologists and psychologists already assume causality in their work, but a more thorough understanding of its implications might really increase the accuracy of predictions and explanations in these sciences.

ninjacolin's avatar

“In order for free will to be in theory form some sort of explanation would need to be conceived and proposed.”

but the moment you can describe the laws that make free will work, it’s no longer free. :)

side musings:
“gravitational time dilation may actually cause time to stop in its bowls”

hmm… looking at the desk infront of me, if it were to suddenly cease from adherence to the time line of the universe, i guess it would seem to simply disappear from sight in the seconds that follow that moment since each moment after, it would cease to reflect light in a causal way…

k.. i’m gonna ask this to fluther..

Shuttle128's avatar

You can explain something as non-causal. You could say that the states in someone’s mind instantaneously without any outside causal conditions change. Of course this isn’t a very good explanation since explanations are expected to be causal, but you can see how it would go.

As for gravitational time dilation:

It’s a little more complex than that. Photons are said to experience all things at once. At the speed of light nothing can experience time. Though they appear to abide by causality. Perhaps singularities create similar circumstances where the mass in the black hole experiences an eternal now, but effect outside entities like photons.

ninjacolin's avatar

“You could say that the states in someone’s mind instantaneously without any outside causal conditions change.”

Not really, only as much as “peristalsis” moves food along without any outside cause. The brain’s normal moment-to-moment functions are what cause mind states to change.

Shuttle128's avatar

Yes, but positing that they do not is the only way to make it non-causal.

ninjacolin's avatar

not sure i understand..

@Shuttle128 said: “You can explain something as non-causal”

but only hypothetically. right?

ETpro's avatar

@Shuttle128 Thanks for the black hole example. But the beginning of the universe is even more compelling a case of causality breaking down. If everything must have a cause, then the first cause needed something to trigger it, but there was no trigger. We must either live with the idea that there is an uncaused cause; i.e. an eternal creator—or with the idea that it is possible for some events to have no cause.

@ninjacolin I get the sense that you believe it is somehow to our benefit to believe in free will assumption. So, i wanted to let you know that I disagree. I’m confident that it is to our benefit to accept the deterministic assumption over the libertarian assumption. Not at all. I am suggesting it is in our benefit to separate what we know from what might likely be true because it holds true in lots of cases and what we want to believe because it tidies up a chaotic world for us. If there can be an uncaused event like the beginning of the universe, or an infinite universe (still no cause, mind you) then why can’t there be other events—such as the possibility of free will, thatn function outside causality. I am not being a prophet of free will here. I am saying I see no proof it doesn’t exist, and no proof it does. I am agnostic toward it.

Shuttle128's avatar

My points were to show that under extreme events where time doesn’t function, causality has no logical basis. It is not that causality is overridden or that something isn’t needed to trigger an event, it’s that causality is not logically possible given the circumstances. Without time something cannot be said to have triggered something. Logic is based on a conditional, an antecedent, and the consequent. This assumes at the very core of everything we understand as logical that causality happens. Without the progression of time, causal relations could not propagate. I don’t think there is a logical argument that can explain the origin of the universe if time really does break down before the Planck time.

At the level of brain activity in a normal human, there does not appear to be any mechanism that offers such extreme conditions that causality might break down. We may not say that causality holds in every case (because of aforementioned examples), but we can assume it holds for the human brain if we can show that large portions of the materials in the brain seem to follow it. This is not a matter of absolute truth about the nature of all things, this is about what working assumptions we can make about how brains function. So far we can explain just about everything the brain does without invoking extra-causal effects. There is no reason to expect it to be extra-causal, unless you have a vested interest in this result. Why be agnostic if determinism is confirmed and noncausal functions are not?

ETpro's avatar

@ninjacolin & @Shuttle128 I suppose we should agree to disagree. I am a compatibilisat. You two are a rigid determinists. One side is right, and one is wrong. You can’t possibly change your mind, because the universe won’t let you. Your arguments have failed to persuade me to change mine. :-)

But rest assured that there is nothing unscientific about my position. Quantum mechanics and chaos theory backs me up significantly. If you care to look into that claim, see The Significance of Free Will bu Physicist Robert Kane.

Shuttle128's avatar

Okay the following arguments are based on what experience I’ve had previously with compatabilists and what I’ve read (which is not terribly much) on Robert Kane. Feel free to correct any assumptions I’ve made.

Here’s the major problem I have with compatibilist and libertarian ideas: both define the self as a separate entity from the environment. Even Kane falls into this trap. In order to have a situation where the actions of a person are the initial cause a self has to exist independently of its environment. We know this is not so. The environment shapes a person and prompts for response.

If a multitude of possibilities are given to a character and that character chooses one of the possibilities he is performing a self-forming action. Here’s the problem, Kane defines the self as a character that is continuously being redefined by his own actions, but a person cannot will themselves into becoming a certain way in the first place. Some initial conditions caused the initial character’s traits. Also, these self-forming actions either occur randomly, or causally. The causal route is the only way that these actions live up to their name. If the self-forming actions are not causal then the content of a character is completely random, but if the character actually does self-define then the outcome of decisions were determined anyway.

I agree that alternate possibilities are necessary for free will, but I think the major issue I have with Kane is the idea that alternate possibilities necessitates indeterminism. I think he has this all completely backwards. It seems like his argument for free will is the classic, “I can make a choice out of many possibilities; therefore, I have free will.” His argument that alternate possibilities necessitates indeterminism seems close to how quantum collapse is described. The problem here is that the brain has the ability to survey possible outcomes and choose between them based on previous experience while quantum collapse does not have such a feedback mechanism. There are multiple paths within the brain that evaluate these possibilities. Each possibility has its own pathway and one of those possibilities will be strong enough to be chosen. The fact that we evaluate the possibilities does not naturally lead to indeterminism. A control system designed by humans and made out of electronics has multiple possibilities, yet we can say that logic determines which possibility will obtain.

ETpro's avatar

I said let’s agree to disagree. I meant it.

Shuttle128's avatar

Have to give you a great answer for that one. Sorry to be so hard-headed, though I am actually interested in knowing more about Kane’s position.

ETpro's avatar

Ha! So am I. I haven’t read his book yet. It’s on my reading list. :-)

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