Ontological Determinism, Epistemological Indeterminism, Laplace’s Demon

[This is part of a set: Thinking]

What follows is putting aside any quantum stuff for the purposes of this point about the difference between ontological determinism and epistemological indeterminism. Adding ontological indeterminism, through quantum indeterminacy or some other means, doesn’t really alter the points made. It also ignores relativistic effects.

This is purely about classical determinism and how, if that were the case in our universe, we still have problems of indeterminism. It’s also about the implications for our view of free-will.

But it begins with a response to some fears of determinism.

In Sean Carroll’s post on Determinism (in the context of Free will) a comment by Katherine included two quotes. One was from Stephen Hawking:

The ideas about scientific theories outlined above assume we are rational beings who are free to observe the universe as we want and to draw logical deductions from what we see. In such a scheme it is reasonable to suppose that we might progress ever closer toward the laws that govern the universe. Yet if there really is a complete unified theory, it would also presumably determine our actions. And so the theory itself would determine the outcome of our search for it! And why should it determine that we come to the right conclusions from the evidence? Might it not equally well determine that we draw the wrong conclusion? Or no conclusion at all?

Well, “Yes” to the last two questions, and “It needn’t” to the first of the last three.

Katherine also quotes Conway and Kochen in a similar mood:

It is hard to take science seriously in a universe that in fact controls all the choices experimenters think they make. Nature could be in an insidious conspiracy to ‘confirm’ laws by denying us the freedom to make the tests that would refute them. Physical induction, the primary tool of science, disappears if we are denied access to random samples.

Well, so what. To paraphrase Lawrence Krauss, science tells us how the universe is, not how we want it to be. If we learn from science that the universe is deterministic, and it happens to be that way, then yes, that determinism determined that that is what we would find. And if we conclude it isn’t deterministic and yet it actually is, then determinism has determined that we make that mistake. We’re stuck with that. Does that make you, the budding Nobel Physicist just embarking on your studies give up and throw in the towel? Well, that was determined too. It’s no good denying determinism because we don’t like it. We should only deny it if we figure out that it isn’t the case (and accept we may have been determined to make that mistake).

If the universe is totally deterministic then that is what it is. If we do eventually observe that this is the case, then this is what we observe, no matter how much it messes with our minds (which too would be determined, obviously). It could be that the determined universe does determine evolution and that our current interpretation of evolution is describing how we see it so far. Natural selection would then simply be the determined outcome of prior states and processes.

A different deterministic universe might have determined no evolution and no entities with self-awareness that could observe the universe the way we do. It’s laws may have had room for evolution, but it simply might not have occurred given the a different starting state.

The Conway and Kochen paper was intent on saving free-will, which seems to be necessary for some people. But why the desire to save free-will? Now, I don’t think we have free-will, that is real free-will beloved of dualists and theists. I do actually think, for now, that we are effectively mechanistic systems. What I’m not clear about is the extent to which determinism holds (given that there are possibilities that allow for quantum mechanics being deterministic – the jury is still out). But I don’t think that has any consequences for any physicalist version of free-will that matters.

So, whether we like it or not, no matter what the implications are for free-will, what if the universe is actually deterministic?

Thinking for the moment about entities within the universe, I don’t see how determinism precludes there being such entities that observe and alter the universe (i.e. ones that do science). It just means that the altered states are just more bits of the determined outcome.

There’s a significant difference between a deterministic system and the capacity for some entity to determine (calculate) its states – the capacity to actually do the math to predict some total state in the future. That a system is deterministic does not require that the system, or any bit in it (e.g. us) actually has to do any predicting of any sort. It just plays out, as determined by its laws (as those laws are, not necessarily as we currently understand them).

Determinism rarely requires that perfect prediction be practically possible – only prediction in theory. – Wiki on Determinism.

To actually determine any one complete state from the starting state you must be an outside observer. The problem for an observer inside the system being observed is that they are part of the system. The observer needs the capacity (e.g. memory + processing system) in order to contain every little detail of the system. But then that capacity (memory + processing system) is also part of the observed system, and so you need more capacity to store data about the state of that sub-system, … This is part of the point of Laplace’s demon, that requires ‘arbitrary’ capacity to do the maths. Perhaps it should be phrased as ‘adequate’ capacity, and it should be made clear that the demon can’t be part of the system.

So, even if the universe is ontologically deterministic, it must be epistemologically indeterminate to internal entities.

Whether it is epistemologically deterministic to external entities is another matter – e.g. Leplace’s demon, God or some other deity, or some other non-intelligent entity like a universe-computer.

But I don’t see reason to suppose that a deterministic universe requires either an observer, or a creator. We have a dataset of 1, as Neil deGrasse Tyson is fond of pointing out. We haven’t the slightest clue as to what’s required in the business of universe creation (active agent) or coming into being (passive mechanistic systems).

The only practical matter for now, to us, is that the universe is practicably indeterminate, because we’re in it. Quantum effects only add to that indeterminacy. In this sense, whether ontological determinism actually holds or not isn’t important.

But as a convenient model determinism is helpful because it should make us think twice about attributing mysterious explanations (like dualist free-will, or the soul) to indeterminate events, or attributing agency where we have no reason to. If we can overcome the fear of determinism and its threat to our hubris of being human and special and immune to the discoveries of science, and just be prepared to face up to what science exposes of the universe to us, or about us, then maybe we can move on from some of the ancient myths that still hold us back.


See also: Re-running The Universe: Determinism, Indeterminism, Quantum Stuff

3 thoughts on “Ontological Determinism, Epistemological Indeterminism, Laplace’s Demon

  1. you say its irrelveant whether we beleive determinism is true or not as the universe is pratically indeterminate.

    Funny thing is, we treat the universe like IS determined, we study science on the premis that we can infact increase our understanding of our habitat. We go forward like there is a pattern to this all, and we just need to work it out. And we’re not wrong. I believe it is all determined.

    The idea of free will doesnt help anyone. Our exploration of people stops at ‘”they did it because they wanted to”

    Maybe i misunderstood your last paragraph though and maybe this is what you were saying.. im fairly stoned.

  2. Jonathan,

    Yes, we do treat the universe as if it is deterministic because it’s convenient to do so on the scales and for the problems we deal with. It is sufficient for many purposes.

    But take the roll of a dice. Is it the case that …

    a) It’s a virtually deterministic outcome, but so chaotic at the small scale that the outcome is indeterminate to us

    b) it’s indeterminate on all levels but that’s so far beyond us that it’s still indeterminate anyway.

    How could we tell the difference, for something like a dice throw?

    If the universe was genuinely and completely deterministic how would we check the deterministic outcome of the weather, down to the position of every molecule, ten days in advance? It would be too much for us. Now we know (to the extent that current science explains it) that down at the level of atoms the indeterminacy becomes more apparent and inherent. Does that mean our weather predictions are any worse, because we now have to worry about quantum stuff?

    The odd thing is, now that we do know more about quantum effects it actually helps explain some stuff, makes our understanding better, and improves our ability to predict stuff. In a trivial sense most senior school kids that know anything of science can predict what couldn’t be predicted a hundred years ago: firing single elements through a double slit will leave an interference pattern.

    Brains have evolved in a universe that is somewhat deterministic on some scales. That makes it easier to reliable anticipate the motion of simple objects, and to learn to anticipate the some aspects of the motion of prey. Prey try to introduce chaos and indeterminacy into their motion to avoid capture, but they are organic rhythmic systems themselves, and running a body in a chaotic fashion is difficult.

    If we couldn’t make some predictions about sources of food and water then we wouldn’t have evolved. Imagine you wake every day to go to the water hole only to find it’s randomly moved to some other unknown place, so you have to search anew each day. Imagine the earth’s motion randomly varied, so we had 90 hours of overhead sun, then a couple of ten hour days, a few hundred ours of night, …, how would our circadian rhythm have evolved? How could we predict anything in a random world? How would the first replicators have replicated?

    Some degree of determinism seems to be part of the reason we are here.

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